(Ford)

The headline felt like it must be an old story, one from last decade: “Mississippi Jury Hands Ford $131 Million Verdict in Explorer Death.” But it wasn’t. A decade ago -- almost to the month -- Ford initiated a recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires the automaker felt were contributing to Explorer rollover accidents, yet it is still in court battling claims and paying out settlements.

But don’t get the idea that Ford is paying anyone $131 million. That was a jury award from a Mississippi court, which decided the case in favor of the family of Brian Cole, a young pitching prospect for the New York Mets, who died in a 2001 accident while driving his Explorer Sport. Cole’s cousin, who was also in the vehicle but survived, was awarded $1.5 million.

As is the case in most big personal injury cases, lawyers and plaintiffs settle for a fraction of the actual award. “Lawyers and plaintiffs want their pay day, and if they held out for the whole amount, it could take many years after many appeals are exhausted,” says Sean Kane of Safety Research and Strategies, a Rehoboth, Mass., firm that supplies plaintiff lawyers with research and other services.

While Little Rock, Ark. attorney Tab Turner and his client probably settled with Ford for between $7 and $15 million at the most, the case, and the size of the award, thrusts the history of the Explorer back into the headlines, and at an inopportune time for Ford. The company is in the process of launching an all-new version of the once popular SUV.

Tab Turner has settled more than $1 billion in rollover cases with Ford over the past two decades, and was a major character in a book about Ford’s Explorer cases, “Tragic Indifference,” written by journalist Adam L. Penenberg in 2003.

While Ford is still plowing through litigation and cases involving pre-2002 Explorers, the number of rollover accidents since then have been few, says Kane. “Starting with the 2002 version, Ford lowered the vehicles, widened the track and introduced electronic-stability-control to the SUV, plus it added an independent rear suspension, all of which greatly eliminated the problems associated with the previous version,” Kane said.

That previous Explorer, in fact, was a very different vehicle than the one sold today. It was an SUV that started out life as a pickup truck, with a solid rear axle and a comparatively high center of gravity. This made the vehicle much more prone to roll. To bring an SUV to market as quickly and cheaply as possible, Ford adapted the pickup chassis and stuck an SUV top on it.

Still, that Explorer was the king of the 1990s SUV craze when baby boomers were turning their backs on station wagons and minivans and embracing the rugged Eddie Bauer mystique of an SUV as family car. Ford sold 445,000 Explorers in 2000. Americans have since soured on big, heavy gas guzzler SUVs, and Ford sold only 52,000 Explorers in 2009.

In the case of Brian Cole, the young athlete was speeding, and not wearing a seatbelt. He was ejected from the vehicle when it rolled over. Ford spokeswoman Marcey Evans said he was traveling at over 80 mph. She also said Ford would have won the case had the judge not excluded certain pieces of evidence.

Cole was driving an Explorer Sport, the two-door version, which had a wheelbase 10 inches shorter than the four-door and a greater incidence of rollover than the four-door version. The shorter wheelbase, combined with the same high center of gravity as the four-door, the theory goes, made it even more unstable in accidents.

The old Explorer was unquestionably a problem for Ford, and it appears to be the gift that keeps on giving. It made the company dizzying profits that in its heyday topped $10,000 per vehicle. But the safety record is hard to escape. According to government accident statistics assembled by Safety and Research Strategies, one in every 2,700 Ford Explorers built between 1990 and 2001 rolled over and killed at least one person in the car. The accident figures associated with the Ford Bronco II, the forerunner of the Ford Explorer, are even more frightening: one in 500 Bronco II’s ever produced was involved in a fatal rollover.

Ford always maintained when it went through its massive and costly recall of Firestone tires that it was the tires that caused the rollovers, not the vehicle design. But Kane says that even after the recall and replacement of tires in 2000 and 2001, pre-2002 Ford Explorers continued to have fatal rollovers at a far greater rate than rival SUVs. “In other words, it’s hard to blame the tires when the accidents kept happening after the tires were replaced,” said Kane.

There are, of course, fewer and fewer of the 4 million-plus pre-2002 Explorers on the road, as many have been retired to the scrap yard. Explorer was the top trade-in during the U.S. Government’s “Cash-for-Clunkers” program.

Kane says that those still on the road pose serious problems. “They are older, with rear suspension problems, don’t get maintained as well, and in many cases are going to have cheaper tires on them because people tend to put cheaper tires on vehicles as they age,” he says.

To be sure, there is no connection between that Explorer and the one Ford has recently introduced. Indeed, the new 2011 Explorer is really a crossover, based on the same platform as a car. In fact, its underpinnings have a bloodline to a Volvo S80 sedan. And you can’t get much safer than that.



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