Tire Victim: Apology Seemed Sincere

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A woman paralyzed in a rollover crash of a Ford Explorer with Firestone tires reached a settlement Monday under which Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone agreed to pay her an undisclosed amount of money and make public thousands of pages of internal memos and reports.

"We're talking about an incredible, locked-up vault of information," said Mikal Watts, a lawyer for 43-year-old Donna Bailey. "This case will go a long way toward uncovering some of the secrets around these tire failings."

Trying the Bailey case would have put Ford in the position of defending its Explorer on the same day it featured its admittedly safer 2002 version at the Detroit Auto Show.

Ford says it will offer tire pressure monitors and other safety improvements on all its Ford-branded sport utility vehicles by 2005.

Ford said it would introduce a tire pressure sensor on an unnamed SUV model next year and eventually offer the technology on all its trucks and SUVs. The sensor mounts inside the tire and wirelessly transmits warnings about over- or under-inflation to the vehicle.

Ford faces another hit Tuesday as safety regulators issue their first-ever rollover ratings for SUVs, reports CBS News Correspondent Julie Chen.

The most unstable SUVs, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are the Chevrolet Blazer and the GMC Jimmy/Envoy. The Ford Expedition and Ford Explorer, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Lincoln Navigator, the Mercury Mountainer and Montero Sport have the next lowest rankings.

Tab Turner, another Bailey attorney, tells CBS News Early Show Anchor Bryant Gumbel he approves of the agency's decision to release this information but adds, "I don't think this is the answer. The answer is to redesign these vehicles and quit marketing these vehicles as safe passenger car replacements or station wagon replacements."

Bailey, a former rock climber and weightlifter who was paralyzed from the neck down in a wreck last March, had sued the companies for more than $100 million.

While the amount of money Bailey received was undisclosed, it is "enough to take care of her for the rest of her life," Watts said.

Whatever Ford paid Bailey is considered money well spent for a company anxious to erase negative publicity over its most profitable vehicle.

CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson said Bailey also asked for, and got, a personal apology from Ford.

Sunday night, three of the automaker's top attorneys quietly boarded a plane, flew to her hospital bedside, and apologized face-to-face.

"The gist of the whole thing was that they were truly sorry for what...happened to me. And I felt like it was very sincere," said Bailey.

The apology was captured on videotape, but with the sound turned off.

Turner says, "Ford is the one that negotiated us to keep the audio off of thvideotape because they didn't want anyone hearing what they say."

Documents gathered for the Bailey case prove Ford knew about the rollover problems as early as 1989; that a 1995 Explorer redesign did nothing to stabilize the vehicle's structure; and that Bridgestone/Firestone was long aware of its tire's failings, said Roger Braugh, another lawyer for Bailey.

As part of the settlement, the companies also promised to analyze the failings of 300 tires, many of which were not among the 6.5 million recalled in August, Watts said. The Wilderness tire that peeled apart on Donna Bailey was not a recalled tire; critics say it should be added to the list.

Ford has long blamed Firestone tires for at least 200 fatal crashes leading up to the August recall. Bridgestone/Firestone, in turn, has blamed the Explorer's design.

Bridgestone/Firestone spokeswoman Christine Karbowiak said in a statement that the company was pleased to settle because "protracted litigation would serve no useful purpose."

Bailey was injured after the treads peeled off a Firestone tire, causing her friend's Explorer to roll over.

Monday's settlement does not indicate there were problems with tires that weren't recalled, Karbowiak said.

Bailey's lawyers believe they have documents that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration never requested from the companies.

The lawyers said the new analysis and release of documents could spur the recall of additional Bridgestone/Firestone tires, and could prove that defects were more widespread than the companies have admitted.

"This is definitely a victory," said Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer group Public Citizen. "When they get all this data together, I believe it's going to show there needs to be a better recall."

And Bridgestone/Firestone has agreed to at least discuss expanding the recall.

Bailey insisted public disclosure be included in the settlement agreement, her lawyers said.

"She does not want her case to stand merely for someone who wanted a monetary award," Watts said. "She wanted to advance public safety and protect lives."

Bailey lies paralyzed below the neck in a rehabilitation center in Houston. She has undergone 10 months of rehabilitation and spends her days staring at soap operas, drawing oxygen through a ventilator.

Before the accident, Bailey, who has an 18-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son, was studying at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi to be a gym teacher, and led troubled teens on climbing and camping expeditions as a volunteer wilderness instructor.

"We are pleased to have resolved this case with Donna Bailey," Ford spokeswoman Susan Krusel said. "We extend our sympathies to her and her family."

After the settlement is signed, the companies will have 90 days to analyze 300 tires linked to Explorer wrecks. The findings must then be submitted to NHTSA within 30 days, and also will be made public. All docuents already handed over to the government will be made public within 15 days.

As many as 200 lawsuits have been filed against Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone over tire-related crashes. Last month, Ford resolved six claims in a single day, and Bruce Kaster, a leading lawyer in defective tire suits, said the company appeared to be moving quickly to resolve the cases.

Tire pressure was one of the major areas of inquiry in the recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires, most mounted on Ford Explorer SUVs, whose failure has been tied to thousands of accidents.

Pressure determines how much weight a tire can hold, and influences how much heat builds up in the tire. Ford had recommended that the Firestone Wilderness AT tires on the Explorer be inflated to 26 pounds per square inch, in part to improve the stability of the vehicle.

But in an analysis released last month, Bridgestone/Firestone said that a Wilderness tire inflated to 26 psi on an Explorer could fall below industry standards for weight capacity if left unchecked for four months through normal pressure loss.

After the recall, Bridgestone/Firestone recommended that Ford raise the recommended pressure to 30 psi. Ford engineers contended that at 26 psi, there was a margin of safety large enough to handle regular pressure loss, but the company eventually went along with the tire maker's suggestion.

The other safety features Ford will offer include:

  • Anti-lock brakes that sense which wheels have the best traction and can distribute braking force.

  • A system of air bags, seat belts and sensors that measure the severity of a crash and adjust the force of air bag deployment and seat belt tension.

  • A side curtain air bag system that responds to side impacts and rollovers. The curtain is designed to prevent passengers from being ejected from the vehicle in rollover accidents.

  • Electronic stability control, which uses the vehicle's brakes to keep a vehicle from skidding.

  • Lowering the bumpers to meet those of passenger cars. The higher bumpers of SUVs have been blamed for causing severe injuries to accident victims in passenger cars.

    Ford said all of the new features except for the tire pressure monitor would be offered on the 2002 Explorer and would be made available on other models by 2005. It was not clear whether the features would be standard or optional.

    Other automakers have offered some similar features on their SUVs, and some, such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW, have heavily promoted the safety of their vehicles.

    Ford president and CEO Jacques Nasser said Monday that in spite of the tire recall, safety remained a major reason for buying a SUV, and that Ford was not in danger of losing SUV buyers because of safety concerns.

    "I don't think over the longer term people will relate the bad tire issue to sport utility vehicles," he said. "I think customers and the market will judge us based on our behavior and the wawe reacted."