updated 1/8/2004 11:36:04 AM ET 2004-01-08T16:36:04

U-Haul is forbidding its stores from renting trailers to customers driving Ford Explorers, citing product liability lawsuits involving the popular sport utility vehicle, a newspaper reported.

U-Haul International Inc., North America's largest trailer rental company with more than 17,000 outlets, implemented the policy Dec. 22, saying it can no longer afford to defend the lawsuits, The Detroit News reported in Thursday editions.

"U-Haul has chosen not to rent behind this tow vehicle based on our history of excessive costs in defending lawsuits involving Ford Explorer towing combinations," the company told the newspaper, adding that the move is "not related to safety issues."

Joanne Fried, a U-Haul spokeswoman, declined to disclose how much the Phoenix-based company has spent defending lawsuits involving Explorers.

"The decision is not based on one accident," she said. "It's based on several different lawsuits going on for several years."

Ford Motor Co. spokesman Jon Harmon called U-Haul's decision "surprising and disappointing."

"This is all about runaway litigation and trial lawyers forcing businesses to make unfortunate decisions for fear of lawsuits," he said.

U-Haul was involved in a lawsuit that Bridgestone/Firestone settled out of court in September. It involved three college students who were injured when their Firestone-equipped Explorer overturned while pulling a U-Haul trailer.

Bridgestone/Firestone is currently trying reach an agreement on a $149 million settlement of 30 class-action lawsuits because of defective tires.

Although federal regulators have said there isn't enough evidence to show that the Explorer model contributed to the tire defects, many of the problem tires were equipped on Explorers.

A bulletin issued to U-Haul dealers last month said the company's decision was "based on the negative perceptions of Ford Explorers ... we are separating ourselves from the negative public perception and its potential consequences."

Ford has maintained the Explorer is safe. In 2002, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration traced Explorer tire failures and resulting rollovers to tire manufacturing flaws.

Fried said the rental ban applies to all model years, even though the Explorer was redesigned in 2002, improving its rollover rating. It was voted "tow vehicle of the year" by Trailer Boats magazine the same year.

Ford launched the Explorer 14 years ago and this month will deliver its 5 millionth unit.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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