Trial set to begin in suit accusing Firestone, Ford wreck killed Civil Rights leader Earl Shinhoster

posted on:
January 6, 2003

author:
Bob Johnson

Montgomery– Jury selection is expected to begin today for the trial of a lawsuit that accuses Bridgestone-Firestone and Ford Motor Company of causing the wreck that killed civil rights leader Earl Shinhoster.

Shinhoster, a former NAACP acting executive director in Atlanta, and Samimah Aziz were passengers in a Ford Explorer that crashed June 11, 2000, on Interstate 85 near Tuskegee. Aziz was seriously injured.

The Ford Explorer was part of a security motorcade – traveling 80 mpg in a 70 mph zone – that was carrying Shinhoster to Montgomery. Traveling in another vehicle in the motorcade was first lady of Nigeria, Jewel Howard-Taylor.

The lawsuit was filed by Shinhoster’s widow, Ruby Shinhoster, and by Aziz, a goddaughter of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. It claims the accident occurred when the tire on the Explorer blew out and “disintegrated” and that Bridgestone-Firestone knew the tire was defective. The lawsuit also claims that Ford was at fault because of defects that the plaintiffs say caused the vehicle to roll over after the accident.

Attorneys are expected to begin selecting a jury Monday morning in Tuskegee as the trial begins before Macon County Circuit Judge Howard Bryan.

The lawsuit is one of many that have been filed in accidents involving alleged failure of Firestone tires and/or Ford Explorer rollovers. But a vehicle safety researcher says it’s the first time that Bridgestone-Firestone and Ford will be defendants in a trial involving the same accident. Sean Kane, a researcher with Strategic Safety of Arlington, Va., said the trial is also significant because the tire involved in the accident was not one recalled by Bridgestone-Firestone.

“It was similar in construction to the recalled tires,” Kane said. He said another issue in the trial will be the age of the tire, which was seven years old but had barely been used.

Earl Shinhoster’s brother, Richard Shinhoster of Savannah, Ga., said he has mixed emotions about the case finally coming to trial.

“I would like to see the case go to trial before a jury because I think Ford and Firestone were very negligent in terms of their obligation to consumers,” Shinhoster said. “Their products were defective and the public needs to hear the facts.”

But he said it will be painful for the family to have to hear all the details of the accident again.

One of the attorneys for Bridgestone-Firestone during the trial will be well-known Alabama civil rights attorney Fred Gray, who represented civil rights icons Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks. Shinhoster said he was disappointed that “someone with his civil rights reputation” would be on the side of the two corporations.

Gray could not be reached for comment, but a spokesman for Bridgestone-Firestone, Dan MacDonald, said Gray was hired “because he’s an excellent attorney. We always want to hire the best legal talent.”

In a statement, MacDonald called the accident a “tragedy,” but said accidents often are caused by various facts.

“It is important to understand that tire failure does not indicate that a tire was defective and there is no indication that this tire was defective in any way,” MacDonald said.

The trial is also significant because of Earl Shinhoster’s work with the NAACP and his involvement in civil rights causes in the U.S. and in Africa.

“Earl’s work certainly contributed to the betterment of man,” Richard Shinhoster said. “We lost a lot when we lost Earl. He was only 49 years old. He had so much still to offer.”

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