TODAY   |  December 24, 2009

Lawyers cash in on class-action suit

Dec. 24: The attorneys who successfully sued Ford over defective tires reaped $25 million in fees from the class-action suit, but consumers only claimed $37,500 in damages. NBC’s chief investigative correspondent Lisa Myers reports.

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>>> back now at 7:41. lawyers are often the butt of jokes, but nbc's lisa myers found a group of attorneys at the center of outrage. lisa, good morning.

>> reporter: good morning, ann. it's rare that we even get a public accounting in some of these lawsuits that drag on for years. this was what's known as a class-action lawsuit, billed as something that would benefit a million consumers, but guess who the real winners turned out to be? you got it, the lawyers. the suit grew out of all those rollovers a decade ago of ford explorer suvs equipped with firestone tires .

>> another kind of face-off today, this one over the safety of ford suvs and firestone tires .

>> the ceo of the ford motor company faces safety questions --

>> reporter: families of those injured or killed individually sued the companies and collected millions of dollars. but enterprising lawyers also filed another lawsuit against ford, claiming that millions of consumers had been hurt financially because rollover problems diminishe eed the resemi-value of their explorers. after seven years of wrangling and a 50-day trial, a settlement was announced. owners would get a coupon worth up to $500 to buy a new ford.

>> in my view, they were worthless, absolutely worthless.

>> reporter: steve and julie webber, who owned an explorer, objected at the time.

>> you had to know that within a year you'd be purchasing a new car, and secondly, you would have to purchase that car within a year because the coupon then expired.

>> reporter: the lawyers claimed the coupons would be worth $300 million to $500 million to consumers, but so far, only 75 consumers have redeemed their coupons for a total benefit of $ $37,500. and how much did the lawyers make? $25 million. professor john sims , who represented consumers against the settlement, calls it an abuse of the system.

>> lawyers were able to hijack the case and use it to earn $25 million for themselves, even though they didn't get anything that was worth anything for their clients.

>> reporter: auto safety expert clarence dintloe originally supported the lawsuit but changed his mind.

>> the consumers, you know, they just got nothing out of it, the attorneys got $25 million.

>> reporter: the lawyers declined to be interviewed but said they did their best. they said they were disappointing so few consumers used the coupons but that they fought ford alone for nearly seven years, paying $6 million in expenses and spending thousands of hours trying to secure justice. they also noted that they donated $900,000 of their fee to auto safety research. we also should note that the $25 million received by the lawyers included a bonus of more than $3 million awarded by a california judge who lauded their exceptional skill in a difficult case. now, we called the judge to ask if he still thinks the lawyers deserve the bonus. he declined to comment. ann?

>> lisa myers this morning, thanks.

>>> still ahead this morning, we're going to give some military