(Continues from previous post.)
In the early-1990s, Ford Motor Company senior executives decided to get tough against what they considered nuisance suits. Ford had a well-earned reputation among plaintiff attorneys for being an easy mark. Once the trial lawyers have you pegged as a company that doesn't have the stomach to take cases to trial, word gets around that money is to be made filing cases against you. Nothing like the sound of cash registers ringing to bring out lawyers looking to make some easy money even when the facts in their cases have not the slightest basis for a plaintiff verdict. Vehicle accidents are caused by a variety of factors, and few of them are caused by vehicle failures -- that's why they are called accidents. Each year more than 40,000 people are killed in vehicle crashes on American roads and highways. Each one of those accidents is a true and terrible tragedy for the family involved. And in the majority of those accidents, a wrongful death lawsuit is filed against a vehicle manufacturer, generally without much basis.
And Ford was especially targeted for litigation. The company earned its reputation among lawyers as an easy mark when Henry Ford II ran the place. The grandson of the founder, the "Deuce" ran Ford from 1945 until his retirement in 1979, and continued to set the tone as a Board member until his death in 1987. HFII did not trust journalists and he especially did not like negative press coverage. He went to great lengths to avoid it, including settling even the most winnable cases where the accusations against Ford were totally ill-founded. As a natural consequence, the cases against the company multiplied.
I had just returned to Dearborn from a two-year assignment with Ford of Canada and had been assigned responsibility for legal and labor issues within the Ford Corporate News Bureau. I was to help communicate the much tough stance the company had begun to take against nuisance suits. But we still wanted to be seen as respectful, compassionate and empathetic to our customers who had been involved in tragic accidents.
So we did two things: We made sure we clearly and concisely expressed empathy in the same sound bite that we would state our primary objection to the charges made against Ford, ensuring that this dichotomy (empathetic to the victim but resolute in defense against baseless claims) came through to the public even in edited form. Secondly, we succeed in a couple of prominent placements in lawyer publications that would quickly be noticed by our legal adversaries. This included a cover story in American Lawyer in 1995 (unfortunately, the magazine's web archives only go back to 2000, so I can't provide the link, but this indepth story certainly can be found on Lexis/Nexis) which focused on Ford's aggressive new legal strategy. Ford's top litigator, Jim Brown, did not mince words when he described the company's determination to stand firm against baseless charges.
It didn't long for word to get around the trial lawyer circuit that Ford was no longer an easy mark. This saved the company tens of millions of dollars and actually reduced its exposure to negative legal stories in the general press.
All that would change with the Ford-Firestone crisis of 2000-01, but that's another story.
- Jon Harmon