The $US369 million in damages slapped on Ford Motor Co. in an Explorer SUV rollover case last week could expose it to more legal setbacks and highlight the carmaker’s inability to put one of the worst crises in its 100-year history behind it, experts told the Reuters news agency.

The report said the $369 million in damages awarded by a California jury are among the largest ever in a single lawsuit against Ford and mark its first loss after 11 victories in rollover cases focusing on the safety of America’s best-selling sport utility vehicle.

“Certainly Ford would become more aggressive in settling cases that are set for trial,” trial lawyer Roger Braugh, who is currently handling seven Explorer rollover cases, told Reuters.

The news agency said the end of Ford’s winning streak in the rollover-related trials could also ratchet up the value of future out-of-court settlements.

“It puts Ford in a position where they are going to have a difficult time settling cases, at least for a smaller dollar amount,” Sean Kane, a partner with Strategic Safety, a consumer safety research group, told Reuters.

The report noted that Ford last Thursday was ordered to pay $246 million in punitive damages to Benetta Buell-Wilson who was left paralysed from the waist down when her Explorer rolled over in an accident in January 2002 – she was previously awarded $122.6 million in compensatory damages following a six-week trial.

Spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes told Reuters the carmaker has not changed its legal strategy following Thursday’s verdict, however.

“This will not affect our determination to aggressively defend an already safe product,” she reportedly said.

Vokes told Reuters Ford would appeal the California decision but, in setting a precedent, at least for now, it could compound Ford’s problems in dealing with several hundred pending Explorer rollover cases. Braugh reportedly said the number of cases could be as high as 1,000.

The news agency said Ford is also facing a class-action lawsuit over faulty Firestone tyres installed mostly as original equipment on Explorers – plaintiffs have amended the complaint to allege vehicle stability claims in addition to tyre defects.

Reuters said over 270 road deaths were reported from the separation of the vehicle’s tyre treads but, in its financial reports, Ford does not estimate how much all these lawsuits would specifically cost the company.

In 2001, in one of the biggest recalls in US history, former Ford chief executive Jacques Nasser announced that the carmaker was spending $3 billion to replace all 13 million Firestone tyres on Explorers at the time, the report noted, adding that, since the Firestone tyre debacle, Ford has made some design changes to the Explorer, with later models wider at the base and featuring a lower centre of gravity.

According to Reuters, last week’s decision in California drew an angry reaction from rival carmaker General Motors , which has faced its own problems over multimillion-dollar product safety lawsuits.

“You find that where that money goes … on average less than 50% to victims,” GM Chief Executive Rick Wagoner reportedly said.