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In 2001, Brian Cole was 22 years old and having the best day of his life when he and his Ford Explorer ran into the unexpected.

A superstar switch hitter, who never missed a ball, he was recruited by the NY Mets, who would build a whole new team around him.

Brian Cole

Brian had just picked up his cousin to go celebrate with his family when, according to his cousin, another driver cut him off on the highway. Brian adroitly maneuvered the Explorer into the median to avoid an accident.

But something went wrong. According to Brian’s cousin, the steering wheel began to shake violently and the car jolted one direction and lifted off the ground. When the Explorer began to flip over and over, Brian’s cousin heard a loud snap and Brian disappeared from the car. Brian died from his injuries.

Ford Explorer

In court, Ford claimed that Brian was guilty of reckless driving, even though his cousin testified that they were driving about 45 MPH. Ford would later blame accidents like these involving the Explorer on Firestone tires, sending Firestone stock into a tailspin.

But Tab Turner, the lawyer for the family, proved that the Explorer had a history of rollovers and that the Explorer seatbelts tended to fail in rollover accidents.

Lawyer Tab Turner

Turner, later known as “Ford’s Nemesis”, won Brian’s family $131 million. Afterward, Ford would redesign the Explorer to fix the rollover issue. “Ford’s Nemesis” would help vindicate Firestone by proving that Ford was at fault in the rollovers, and not Firestone.

Though the settlement was a vindication, Brian’s parents would’ve had a better day if they still had their son.

The Explorer’s Background

The safety of the Ford SUVs became a nationwide concern in 2000. More than 200 deaths and 700 injuries in the United States were blamed on Ford Explorers rolling over after the tread separated on Firestone tires with which the Explorers had been equipped.

So, was it the tires, or the car—or both that caused the rollovers?

Firestone tires

Before there was an Explorer, OJ’s car was infamous by itself

Anyone alive in 1994 has heard of the Ford Bronco. It was riveting watching the OJ Simpson, formally famous for running through airports in commercials, leading the police on a chase through the LA freeway system.

Little did we know that the Bronco was infamous of its own accord. By 1990, that SUV had been labeled the most deadly SUV on the road by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Why was the Explorer Unsafe?

The Explorer was created in 1992 in hopes of avoiding the Bronco’s rollover issues. But both cars suffered from stability problems. When Explorer test drivers saw the tires tip up on the sides, Ford knew it should improve its stability issues. They discovered they should widen the vehicle two inches.

But Ford didn’t do that. Instead they made minor changes in suspension and tire pressure. They crossed their fingers and released the car. The Explorer started rolling over immediately.


What About Firestone Tires?

Since all the rolled over Explorers had Firestone tires, Ford found a convenient scapegoat. They pointed the finger at their long-time tire partner. When a tire exploded on an Explorer, the car was unable to pull over to the side of the road. They rolled over instead.

But Firestone ran their own tests, and found that the Explorer rolled over no matter what brand tire they sported.

So that settles the car v tire issue, but that’s not what killed Brian Cole…

Brian Cole was not known for driving without a seatbelt, yet that’s exactly what Ford alleged in court. The surviving passenger, Brian’s cousin, testified that he was wearing his seatbelt.

seatbelt problems

The evidence corroborated this. Brian’s brother Greg noticed something odd when inspecting the car. “One thing we noticed when we opened the truck was that the seatbelt was still latched,” said Greg. “That kind of raised suspicions in our mind.”

Was the seatbelt defective? The belt was designed to lock into a firm grip when there’s sudden movement, like during a collision. But the same belt could fail and go slack during the unpredictable forces of a rollover.

What Happened in Court?

Though the Coles couldn’t get their son back, they sued Ford. The case took place 2010—9 years after the accident. Engineers used illustrations to show that Brian’s belt came loose on the first roll; he was thrown 78 feet, and never had a chance.

Five years before the accident, Ford’s own seat belt manufacturer TRW told Ford they already offered a better design: a belt that “remains locked with belt tension regardless of motion.” Yet it took Ford five years to begin using the improved belts in some SUVs. Brian was already dead.

In court, Ford insisted that Cole wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.

The jurors decided otherwise after seeing a coroner’s photo. It appeared to show the severe bruising where Brian’s shoulder belt grabbed him — before going slack and letting him go. The jury returned an unprecedented $131 million verdict against Ford.

Ford Explorers in the Wild

2001 Ford Explorer

According to federal data, 22,000 people who were wearing their seat belts died in rollover crashes between 1992 and 2002. Joan Claybrook used to head the federal highway safety agency NHTSA. She says rollover-safe belts are inexpensive and that federal officials should have forced automakers to use them years ago. As it is, she says there are no federal rules mandating seat belts that hold in a rollover crash.

A Tragic Conclusion

In 2002, (the year after Brian Cole died), Ford finally made the changes they refused to make when they first released the Ford Explorer. Unfortunately, the Ford Explorer early models are still on the road, and many of their occupants are suffering from the effects of severe rollover accidents. Lawsuits continue to be filed, and in 2009, Ford lost four major rollover cases, each worth $10 million or more.