"Flaky Ford" suit fails

The Madison County Record Jan. 13, 2008, 9:40am

Madison County lawyer Robert Schmieder had a billion dollar dream.

He wanted the Madison County court to declare him class action counsel for some 27 million Ford owners from 50 U.S. states. He hoped to question William Clay Ford, Jr., Ford's Chairman of the Board and ex-CEO. There was talk of billions of dollars in damages-- that's with a "B"-- if his claims that Ford fraudulently used defective paint on its cars could be proven.

Ford had acknowledged flaking paint issues in some of its older models. The company spent millions of dollars fixing customers' cars. All the owners had to do was ask. But no matter. This was grounds for a class action lawsuit.

If the suit was successful, Schmieder would get many millions in fees, not to mention a truckload of peer prestige for getting the better of an American corporate icon.

That may be why Schmieder so doggedly pursued his infamous "Flaky Ford" class action lawsuit for much of the past decade. In a multi-million dollar way the case stood to benefit him personally.

One has to wonder why our judicial system felt obliged to allow this case to meander and linger for so many years.

A secretary at Schmieder's Lakin Law Firm, Joyce Phillips, got the ball rolling back in 1999. She drove a Ford Taurus.

"I heard around the office that there was a paint problem, and I said, 'I have paint problems,'" Phillips said in a 2002 deposition. She withdrew her name from the case in 2005.

Nine years of courthouse haggling and several judges later, Madison County Associate Judge Richard Tognarelli effectively killed Schmieder's "flaky" crusade Dec. 20.

Plaintiffs could sue Ford over their paint jobs, he said. But the cases would have to be decided individually. Schmieder would have to try each case on its own merits. There would be no chance to settle 27 million cases and maybe collect a third or more in lawyer fees.

Tognarelli didn't dispute plaintiffs' flaky paint claims. But he took away Schmieder's lawsuit incentives-- the ones that held the promise that, someday, the case might make him very rich.

No one is taking bets that Schmieder will be pursuing individual flaky paint claims on behalf of plaintiffs. The judge's decision seems to expose this case for what it really was-- a process devised to benefit some plaintiff's lawyers, not deliver justice to Ford owners.

A relic of Madison County's crazy class action past, here's hoping the nine-year "Flaky Ford" saga also serves as a reverberating example.

Tortured games of courthouse corporate "gotcha" can be a potential mother lode for some lawyers, but they're a terrible means of making wronged consumers whole.

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