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Editor's Notebook

Show Me the Money!

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Why do they always say, "It’s not about the money?" Pro athletes (and now colleges)

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jump ship for bigger paychecks, and think we’re gullible enough to buy their sing-song "It’s not about the money" routine.

It’s always, always, always about the money. Especially for faux-altruistic lawyers like Joe Lisoni.

Joe and his wife, Gail, have a little ’boutique" law practice in Pasadena. Something, I imagine, the size of a kitchen table. Joe read about all the Ford/Firestone recalls and saw all the fat settlements and, looking at the size of his practice, decided to go for the gold.

But instead of following the gravy train of Wilderness suits, Joe decided to plow new ground and go after the Firestone Steeltex. As luck would have it, he found a guy who had multiple flat tires while traveling the country in his Steeltex-shod RV. No injuries. No deaths. Just a few frustrating flats while pounding out thousands of miles from one racetrack to the next. No matter, this man’s story would do.

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Joe decided his flats were a sure sign of impending tire Armageddon, that something far more sinister was afoot and thousands of lives were at stake.

So he conjured up a scenario that the tires were defective, that Bridgestone Americas Holding knew it, and that the tiremaker intentionally hid the truth from his client and millions of others.

So he filed the paperwork for a class action suit against the tiremaker, hired a PR firm, set up a Web site, found himself a "tire expert," and in August 2002 held one of the most audacious press conferences in history.

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And he did all this without one shard of real evidence.

"This litigation isn’t about money, it’s about responsibility," Lisoni sang during his media circus, held in front of a mangled van that wasn’t at all connected to his suit. "It is our goal to remove the Firestone Steeltex tires from the roads and highways of this nation."

That deep concern for human life is why Lisoni’s suit also seeks millions in compensatory and punitive damages (of which he’ll get a nice 30-40% cut), not to mention having BAH pay his clients’ legal bills (more money), and he wants BAH to repay all profits it made selling Steeltex tires over the years. Oh, and if he can convince a California judge, the recall of some 30 million Steeltex tires, which would cost BAH an estimated $3 billion.

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Yessiree, it’s not about the money.

When NHTSA decided it wouldn’t reopen its long-closed investigation of the Steeltex lines, it basically stated that Lisoni failed miserably to show cause. Frankly, I’d be surprised if the boys at NHTSA weren’t in hysterics.

After months of a second investigation, NHTSA found that only 54 injury crashes (41 due to tread separations) and 13 deaths could be attributed to the 39 million Steeltex tires produced.

For those reaching for a calculator, that’s a grand total of .000000001% of all Steeltex tires produced. NHTSA even said the Steeltex performed better than many of its "peer tires."

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No matter, says Joe. Despite having a huge hole blown into his case, he’s pressing ahead with his crusade.

At the end of the day, though, Joe Lisoni and others like him are just sharks with shingles looking for low hanging fruit. Legalized extortionists who continue to hunt down every rollover accident – especially any involving a Ford ®€“ looking for a fat payday.

Playing on consumer fear and tossing around words like "catastrophic" and "responsibility" – knowing that it’s cheaper to settle than litigate – these jackals usually end up with fat settlement checks for their efforts.

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And tire companies are tired of it all.

Lisoni’s run at BAH demonstrates the lengths these self-styled defenders of the public will go. With calculated misinterpretation, uncorroborated and unconnected data and utter fabrication, these sharks are disassembling this industry. Until they see the easy paydays are over, they won’t back off.

Consumers don’t know any better. They see Lisoni on CBS Evening News and think all tires are bad, and all tire companies are evil. Fortunately, you know the difference. And tiremakers count on your intimate knowledge of tire performance and consumer tire care habits as their first-line defense.

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Like that ant trying to move a rubber tree plant, Joe has high hopes. At this writing, his class action case is still being considered in the slightly off-center, damn-the-evidence California court system. Which means it’s a total crapshoot how it will all turn out.

But we know one thing for sure: it’s not about the money.

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