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Product Liability: 1997 Ford Explorer's Lethal "Skate" Problem

Most product liability lawyers will admit that defective auto parts can become a dangerous hazard on the road. John Means was driving his 1997 Ford Explorer on I-65 heading toward Montgomery, Alabama when the tread on the driver's side rear tire separated. Means lost control of the SUV and it rolled over five times. Mr. Means, April Powell, the front seat passenger, and Natasha Womack, one of the rear-seat passengers, were severely injured and incurred major medical expenses. Another rear-seat passenger, Antoine Thagard, eventually died from her injuries. Mr.Means remained in intensive care for a month with a traumatic brain injury. Ms. Womack suffered permanent memory loss and compound fractures to both legs. Ms. Powell required reconstructive surgery on her arm.

Mr. Means filed a defective auto product lawsuit against Ford and Firestone Tire Company. His attorney showed that Mr. Means was traveling well within the posted speed limit and that he was operating the Explorer properly in every respect. It was revealed in discovery that the 1997 Ford Explorer is susceptible to oversteer and basically uncontrollable during a rear-tire tread separation.

This occurs because when the tire first starts to separate, it tends to pull the SUV in the direction of the separating tire, requiring the driver to counter-steer. When the tread comes off, the SUV abruptly oversteers. In addition, the rear of the SUV will tend to "skate" when a tire is separating--a condition confirmed by Ford's own testing. Skating begins when the SUV's rear end bounces up and down at a certain frequency.

In 1996, three Ford engineers warned that the shock absorbers should be moved to prevent skate. In an article published by the Society of Automotive Engineers, Kenneth Kramer, William Janitor and Lawrence Bradley wrote about the suspension used on the Explorer and other Ford vehicles. They said that skate occurred most often when vehicles are driven aggressively on rough, winding roads, or during single wheel events or potholes. They advised that shock absorbers be moved outward toward the wheels. Ford finally solved the skate problem in the 2002 4-door Explorer by changing to an independent rear suspension.

"Ford's internal testing revealed that when a skate condition occurs, the Explorer had a tendency to slide in one direction or the other without moving the steering wheel," noted nationally recognized auto product liability lawyer, John Bisnar. "Firestone commissioned its own study, confirming the Explorer's over-steer problem before the U.S. recall campaign. This shows how defective products and a poorly designed SUV can unite to cause serious injury or death without warning. Regrettably, such defects are neither observable nor discoverable by the average consumer."

Ford Motor Company and Firestone Tire Company both worked out a satisfactory settlement with Mr. Means who requested the amount of the settlement remain confidential.

"This case points to the need for consumers to be ever vigilant in not only the tires they buy, but the resultant effects such defective products can have on an improperly designed vehicle," observed Brian Chase of the nationally recognized motor vehicle defects law firm of Bisnar Chase Personal Injury Attorneys. "Mr. Means decision to pursue Ford and Firestone and hold them accountable is to be commended. Hopefully, these lawsuits, and the many lawsuits we have filed against Ford and other companies will convince them to improve their products and vehicles, making them safer for drivers and passengers alike."

If you or a loved one has suffered serious injuries as the result of a defective auto part or vehicle, contact the experienced California auto products liability attorneys at Bisnar Chase Personal Injury Attorneys for a free consultation. We will use our extensive knowledge and resources to achieve the best possible results for you and your family.

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