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Court upholds order limiting contact with jurors in tire case

By The Associated Press
08.31.01

McALLEN, Texas — A judge today upheld his order restricting contact with jurors in a case involving a South Texas family and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.

News organizations, including The (McAllen) Monitor and the Associated Press, delivered a motion this morning challenging U.S. District Judge Filemon Vela's order. Issued Aug. 29, the order prohibited individuals from contacting jurors without submitting a written application and receiving specific approval from the court.

Upon receiving the challenge, Vela immediately made an oral ruling denying it.

"We understand and respect Judge Vela's desire to protect the jurors in this case, but we think this particular order goes a little bit too far," said Jim Hemphill of Austin, an attorney for the AP.

Ray Stafford, publisher of The Monitor, said Vela's order exercises prior restraint on the press.

"I think the judge needs to reread the Constitution," he said.

Vela told the newspaper yesterday that jurors were being bothered and intimidated. He would not elaborate.

"I'm not denying contact," Vela said, "I left it up to the jurors. But I'm not going to tolerate them being in any way disturbed. They're going to be protected."

Nashville, Tenn.-based Bridgestone/Firestone settled the case with the Rodriguez family for a reported $7.5 million last week as a federal court jury began its fourth day of deliberations in the first case to go to trial since a massive Firestone tire recall.

The jury had been considering whether Bridgestone/Firestone or Ford Motor Co. were responsible for the March 2000 crash of a Ford Explorer that left Marisa Rodriguez, a 39-year-old mother of three, brain-damaged. Ford was not a defendant in the case.

When the settlement was announced, Vela recommended that jurors not talk about the case, saying it would affect pending lawsuits. He also sealed the jurors' names.

The deliberations and jurors' impressions interest both attorneys plotting strategy for similar lawsuits and the news media.

"We would love to know," said Douglas Gwyther, an attorney for the Texas law firm Watts & Heard, which has 80 rollover lawsuits pending of some 300 around the nation. The firm was one of three representing the Rodriguezes. He said the firm had not tried to contact the jurors since thanking them immediately after the settlement was announced.

Attorneys on both sides met with the Rodriguezes after the judge announced the settlement. Both said the jurors indicated that they would follow the judge's recommendation not to speak about the case.

Knox Nunnally, who represented Bridgestone/Firestone, said he had no plans to go against the judge in this "very special case" and was watching today's media challenge with interest.

"We probably would visit with the jurors some more if it was permitted," Nunnally said. "I suppose we're waiting to see how it all plays out."


Update
News groups fail to gain access to jurors
First Amendment experts say federal appeals panel’s ruling follows trend in 5th Circuit to restrict journalists’ newsgathering rights. 09.26.01

Related

Ruling affirming anonymous jury flouts principle of open trials

By Douglas Lee 5th Circuit decision in U.S. v. Brown treats ordinary newsgathering as threat to ‘integrity and independence of the jury process.’ 05.29.01

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