Tires, Trials, and Truth

Adam L. Penenberg's retelling of the Ford-Firestone debacle is both a gripping court-room drama and an insightful investigation.

This gripping account of the Ford-Firestone debacle has all the elements of a Hollywood legal thriller -- so it's no surprise that a film adaptation starring Michael Douglas is already in the works. The victim, Donna Bailey, is a single mother who became a quadriplegic after an SUV crash. Her lawyer, Tab Turner, is an affable crusader, equal parts Atticus Finch and Ralph Nader. Ford and Firestone, meanwhile, implausibly deny any responsibility until the bitter end. The little guy wins, of course: Bailey gets $27 million in legal settlements and forces Ford lawyers to visit her hospital bed and apologize.

Beyond the courtroom drama, Tragic Indifference catalogs chilling facts: In a single decade, rollover-happy Explorers killed more than 200 people and endangered millions. While exposes and lawsuits mounted, each company blamed the other. Ford accused Firestone of making shoddy tires. Firestone faulted Ford for underinflating their tires. They were both right: Ford and Firestone had each cut corners, sacrificing safety on the altar of profits.

Penenberg holds scant faith in government regulation and says litigation is the best way to hold irresponsible corporations accountable. Yet his narrative also shows how skilled corporations have become at discreetly settling lawsuits -- and getting back to business as usual.