By Howard Breuer
INDIO, Calif., March 17 (Reuters) - A California judge on Wednesday rejected a bid to certify a $3 billion national class action lawsuit claiming lethal defects in 41 million heavy duty Steeltex tires made by Bridgestone/Firestone.
The legal victory for the Nashville, Tennessee-based unit of Japan's Bridgestone Corp. comes days after the tire maker settled a $149 million class action in Texas stemming from the recall four years ago of 17 million smaller-class Wilderness tires.
A limited recall of 490,000 Steeltex tires made forMotor Co.'s Excursion sport utility vehicles was announced in February, but Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire insists that most Steeltex tires made over the past 14 years are free of defects.
Joseph Lisoni, a Pasadena, California lawyer, has waged a separate 20-month battle to force the company to recall up to 41 million Steeltex R4S, R4SII and A/T tires and reimburse those who bought them -- at a cost of about $3 billion.
But Indio Superior Court Judge Christopher J. Sheldon ruled that Lisoni failed to present evidence that it was reasonable to bring a single, nationwide class action suit against a tire that comes in 103 different styles.
"This case is lacking in every aspect of evidence in class certification," Sheldon said at the end of a brief proceeding.
Lisoni vowed to appeal the decision immediately and to file a new class action case against the Japan-based parent company. He also said he would immediately file separate actions in six states -- California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado and Florida -- as well as the District of Columbia on behalf of individual plaintiffs in those jurisdictions.
LAWYER NOT SURPRISED
Lisoni said he was disappointed by the decision but not surprised, telling reporters outside the courtroom that he felt the judge was "intimidated" by such a big case.
"We're out in a small court in the middle of the California desert," he said, adding that the judge "was looking for a way to get it off his desk."
Indio is about 120 miles (195 km) east of Los Angeles near the desert resort city of Palm Springs.
Bridgestone/Firestone attorneys had arrived in court carrying two Steeltex tires, one weighing 10 pounds more than the other, to dispel any notion that all of the Steeltex tires are built the same way and might share the same defects.
"The point is the tires are all very different. The claims are different. The laws in each of the 50 states are different," company spokesman Dan MacDonald said.
Although both sides came to court prepared for lengthy arguments, the judge said he already had reviewed their motions and proceeded to affirm a ruling he tentatively made the day earlier against Lisoni.
Lisoni contended that to save money, Bridgestone/Firestone used a defective bonding material in Steeltex tires that causes tread separation -- the same defect that sparked the recall of Firestone Wilderness AT and ATX tires in August 2000. That recall and ensuing lawsuits over 271 deaths and hundreds of injuries cost the company about $1.5 billion.
Steeltex comes as standard equipment on 71 types of vehicles, including large pickups, large SUVs, recreational vehicles and ambulances. The company estimates that about 30 million of them are still on the road.
On Monday, Bridgestone announced that a Texas judge had approved a $149 million settlement of class action suits sparked by the Wilderness recall. That settlement covers only the owners of Firestone tires who were not injured.
In February, Bridgestone recalled its Steeltex Radial A/T LT265/75R16 load range D tires. The company manufactured 490,000 of those tires and estimates that about 297,000 remain in use.