Guest Editorial by Dan Lambe, Executive Director of Texas Watch
The Firestone tire debacle has many Texas families asking hard questions. What did Firestone know and when did they know it? How could it take 46 deaths linked to their tires before Firestone faced the facts that their tires could be dangerously defective? How could a corporation take so long to step up to the plate to protect their customers? Finding the answers to these questions poses the first high-profile test of Texas’s “reformed” civil justice system.
The Texans who lost loved ones in accidents potentially linked to Firestone tires and those wondering if they are driving on ticking time bombs, will probably be surprised to learn the ways in which Firestone will be able to evade full accountability to Texas families. Since 1995, Firestone and other manufacturing, insurance and chemical corporations have used laws passed by the Texas Legislature in the name of “tort reform” to skirt responsibility and delay justice. Firestone will likely use those laws to shield itself from responsibility to drivers such as the Waco teen whose paralyzing accident linked to Firestone tires occurred one year prior to the recall.
This is hardly the first time in recent years that a corporation valued profits over lives. Despite history’s lessons however, Firestone did not step up to the plate to protect families from its dangerously defective product on its own. It took the pressure of legal action by families involved in tire-related wrecks, major retailers and the federal government to get action from Firestone.
The next step-holding Firestone accountable if its tires are defective-will be even harder. It used to be possible for Texans to send a convincing message to corporations through our strong civil justice system. When Ford placed families in danger in its Pinto cars and the Dalkon Shield caused birth defects, families had the tools they needed to hold wrongdoers accountable for risking lives in the name of profits.
Unfortunately, due to the lobbying activities of manufacturers, chemical companies and other corporate interests, Texas families have lost many of the consumer legal protections used to hold irresponsible corporations accountable. State laws passed at the behest of these special interests have stripped legal rights of Texas families who must face corporate giants like Firestone. For example:
- According to a 1995 law, Firestone would bear less accountability to the family of a homemaker killed in an accident linked to the tires than the corporation would owe to the family of a businessman with a high annual salary. The law ties a corporation’s responsibility to an accident victim’s monetary value.
- In another 1995 change, defense lawyers were given new leeway to drag other parties into personal injury lawsuits as part of a strategy to shift financial responsibility for the injury costs from the wrongdoer to the injured person. Under this law, Firestone could pass expenses on to innocent drivers or independent retailers.
- Texans who find themselves in financial disputes with Firestone over tire replacement costs will find it tougher, or even impossible, to band together with others in similar circumstances in a class action lawsuit thanks to a recent ruling by the Texas Supreme Court. Instead of being able to turn to this efficient avenue to justice, each family may be forced to battle each hurdle of the courts on their own against Firestone’s high-priced legal defense teams.
- Punitive damages, assessed by citizen jurors to punish and deter the worst examples of corporate misconduct, no longer send a strong enough message to prevent future misconduct. In 1995, the formula for such assessments was severely curtailed, silencing any message by a jury that corporations must not value profits over lives.
The fallout from this massive recall is the first high-profile test of Texas’s fractured civil justice system. Texas families do not want-nor do they deserve-such unequal justice. The outrage of drivers forced to wait weeks for safe tires will soon be aimed at the glaring holes in our justice system that has little teeth to hold the corporation accountable.
The Firestone tragedy serves as an opportunity for Texans to re-think the way our legal system treats Texas families who suffer death and injury from dangerously defective products. The upcoming 2001 Legislative Session offers an opportunity to “just say no” to the continuing clamor of self-serving special interests. The time is right to pay more attention to consumer rights and stop allowing corporations to shield themselves from their responsibility to Texas families.
Texas Watch is a non-partisan statewide consumer research and advocacy organization committed to engaging and involving Texas consumers in the public policy process. Texas Watch works to represent and involve its 3000 statewide members in the legislative, regulatory and judicial arenas in Texas.