Washington's decision to forego an investigation of Ford Motor Co.'s top-selling SUV will have little effect on personal injury litigation against the world's No.2 auto maker, early reaction suggests. “NHTSA's determination is essentially meaningless,” Florida lawyer Bruce Kaster says of a National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. report that dismisses design defect claims leveled against Ford's pre-'02 Explorer.

Kaster is a key member of a high-profile legal team leading a class-action suit against Ford and Bridgestone Corp.'s Firestone unit, which manufactured tires implicated in nearly 300 deaths. Most of the fatalities occurred when Firestone-equipped Explorers sustained tread separations and rolled over. Kaster says Ford is at least as culpable as Firestone, maybe even moreso in some cases. Ford vehemently disagrees, contending the NHTSA report is a vindication of its design.