The dangers of Ford's Explorer, prone to rollover since it was first designed and made worse when equipped with under-inflated Firestone tires that tried to hide the defect, were hidden from consumers, who were deceived into buying and leasing them and now face significantly reduced values for the vehicles, according to a first-ever lawsuit.

When it was developed in the late 1980s, Ford tested the Explorer's stability to determine whether it would face the rollover problem that plagued its predecessor model, the Bronco II. Ford tests showed the Explorer was especially prone to rollover when its Firestone ATX tires were inflated according to Firestone's recommended pressure of 35 psi.

Despite the safety recommendations of its own engineers, Ford decided not to implement fundamental design changes to correct the rollover defect in order to speed the Explorer to market. Instead, Ford, with at least the tacit approval of Bridgestone/Firestone, decreased the air pressure from the tires to increase stability. Under-inflating the tires, though, increased the risk of catastrophic tread separation - and Ford knew it, according to the suit.

"By lowering the tire pressure on the Explorer, Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone tried to trick the public into believing the Explorer was safe. But it wasn't, and the companies knew the dangers from their own testing as well as from basic industry knowledge," said Theodore J. Leopold, of Ricci, Hubbard, Leopold, Frankel & Farmer, P.A., who is representing the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Orlando by Stephen Neuwirth of Boies, Schiller & Flexner, LLP, and Edward M. Ricci and Leopold, of Ricci, Hubbard, Leopold, Frankel & Farmer, P.A. It is the first action against Ford involving the dangers of the Explorer with its Bridgestone/Firestone tires. Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc. and Bridgestone Corp. are co-defendants.

The plaintiffs are Diana Grant, of Palm Springs, FL, owner of a Ford Explorer, and Jane Lill, of Palm Beach Gardens, FL, a previous owner of an Explorer. The lawsuit seeks class-action status.

The lawsuit alleges that Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), and committed fraud and other wrongdoing. It seeks triple damages resulting from the decreased value of owned or leased Explorers, and for the excess costs consumers paid to own or lease the vehicles.

As a result of Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone's fraudulent and deceptive scheme, millions of Americans now own or lease Explorers that are sinking in value. In its most recent pricing schedule, the Automotive Lease Guide, the authority for valuing new vehicle leases, downgraded the after-lease value of the Explorer by $1,850, about $600 of which is attributed directly to the safety risks that were fully known to the defendants prior to the Explorer's introduction.

"Not only did Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone conceal the tire separation defect, but at the same time, they launched elaborate advertising campaigns designed to deceive the public into thinking that the Explorer was safe," said Leopold.

According to recent reports, there have been more than 400 injuries and about 103 deaths in the United States alone - including at least 20 fatalities in Florida - as a result of the Explorer/ATX defect. Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone failed to warn U.S. consumers even when Ford recalled Explorers in 16 foreign countries to replace their ATX tires. Although the automaker has refused to concede the clear consequences of its improper tire pressure directives, it only last week raised its recommended tire pressure from 26 psi to 30 psi.

"Consumers are caught in a Catch-22 situation: raise the tire pressure and face the dangers of a rollover, or continue using the lower pressure and face the consequences of tread separation. It's an unconscionable choice," said Leopold.

"To make matters worse, we now know that consumers vastly overpaid for the opportunity to make this deadly decision and are left with a vehicle that has severely diminished in value."

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