Ford says ignition design safe, but lawsuits allege 11 deaths
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – While Ford Motor Co. maintains that alleged defects in its ignition system in 20 million cars don’t cause stalling or endanger passengers, a series of lawsuits nationwide blame stalling in various models for crashes in which at least 11 people died and 31 were injured.
Also, internal Ford memos indicate the company was concerned that the ignition design could make engines stall – resulting in ”rapid catastrophic failure” – at high temperatures.
Most of the records examined by The Associated Press were produced by Ford as part of a California class-action suit. The lawsuit accuses the company of using a stall-prone ignition system in some models between 1983 to 1995, in part to save $2 per car in manufacturing costs.
The judge overseeing the lawsuit has said Ford knew its design was defective and concealed the problem from federal regulators.
Ford maintains there is no defect or safety issue, and says that cars can stall for any number of reasons. However, it is negotiating a settlement to the class-action suit that plaintiffs lawyers say could cost the company between $750 million and $1 billion.
Alameda County Judge Michael Ballachey could rule as early as Monday on the proposal that would involve, among other things, reimbursing Ford owners nationwide who paid for ignition repairs.
In the first detailed analysis of deaths and injuries blamed on stalling in Fords with the ignition devices, the AP examined 802 lawsuits filed in courthouses across the nation. Most were settled out of court with no acknowledgment of liability.
The AP excluded all accidents that did not clearly involve stalling engines, as well as cases that involved other factors, such as reckless driving. Remaining were 23 accidents from Connecticut to California, among them four fatal crashes that left 11 dead.
Some consumer advocates see shades here of the Ford Pinto debacle of the 1970s, in which 27 people died from exploding gas tanks in rear-end collisions. Ford recalled the Pinto after wrongful death lawsuits brought intense media scrutiny.
”What is quite clear in both instances, with the Pinto and ignition switches, you had a horrendous safety defect that was costing lives, and in both instances Ford knew about it and did nothing,” said Clarence Ditlow, who heads the Center For Auto Safety in Washington, D.C.
Ford representatives would not comment in detail about the internal memos and the lawsuits alleging stalling caused deaths and injuries. The Dearborn, Mich., automaker maintains its ignition modules are safe, citing repeated government investigations that resulted in no recalls.
”There’s never been any proof of failure of this component,” Ford attorney Richard Warmer said, a position Ford has held since the first stalling complaints surfaced in the 1980s.
”We stand behind our products,” company spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes added in response to this story. She declined to comment in more detail, citing a gag order in the class-action case.
No court other than Ballachey’s has found the devices defective. Ford’s settlements customarily prohibit injured parties from disclosing the amounts paid or releasing evidence.
The proposed settlement in the class-action involves compensation for repairs and has no legal impact on the settled individual lawsuits involving deaths and injuries blamed on stalling Ford vehicles.
The lawsuits the AP reviewed describe Ford engines stalling in fast-food driveways, on railroad tracks and on highways – all without warning. Some stalled as soon as new owners left the dealers’ lots. Several of the suits describe repeated vehicle repairs, some to the point of replacing the engine.
When an engine stalls, power steering and brakes become less responsive, and vehicles unexpectedly lose speed. Some drivers were able to safely pull over. Others were rear-ended, blindsided or lost all control.
On April 15, 1990, when Asali Johnson of San Jose was 19, she and seven friends crowded into a 1990 Mercury Sable on a trip to Reno. The car stalled in the Sierra Nevada foothills and lost control, flying several hundred feet down a wooded embankment.
Three of her friends died and four others were injured. Johnson, now a quadriplegic, settled with Ford for $12,500.
Johnson said there are days when she can speak of the accident, and others when her memories are too traumatic.
”Blood has a smell to it. Sometimes you can talk about it and sometimes you cannot,” Johnson said. ”It’s sort of obvious to me that Ford doesn’t care about its customers.”
The ignition device, known as a thick film ignition switch, or TFI module, regulates electric current to the spark plugs. In 29 models made between 1983 and 1995, the module was mounted on the distributor, near the engine block.
According to internal company records, Ford moved the modules there to increase fuel efficiency and save manufacturing costs. In a Sept. 11, 1981 ”program alert” Ford sent to engineers and managers, the company said the move would save $1.50 to $2 per vehicle.
Another company document indicates the automaker had evidence that placing the module on the distributor could cause sudden engine failure.
On May 4, 1988, Ford sent a ”component maximum temperature chart” to its engineers that listed the optimum temperature exposure of the TFI module at 220 degrees, and warned of dire consequences at temperatures exceeding 257 degrees.
”The peak temperatures listed are the absolute maximums at which the devices should operate,” the memo reads, adding, ”Excursions beyond peak can result in rapid catastrophic failure.”
Ford’s own testing showed engines exceeded the 257-degree peak, according to numerous company documents. Ford projected the repair cost at $146 per module, but still it denies any defect.
”We don’t think there’s anything that needs to be replaced. Our ignition system is as good as anybody’s,” Ford attorney Warren Platt said in a recent interview.
The company maintains that any problems with the modules were resolved when it recalled about 1 million of the devices in some 1984 and 1985 vehicles whose engines tended to run hotter than other models. Ford cited ”unexpected warranty claims” as the reason for that voluntary recall.
Jeff Fazio, the lawyer suing Ford in the California class action, declined to comment because of the gag order. ”These parts are defective and they know it,” Fazio has said in earlier interviews.
Judge Ballachey said Ford was living in an ”Alice in Wonderland” dream for calling its vehicles safe, and said the company deceived federal regulators by concealing evidence that the ignition modules were prone to fail at high temperatures.
Four investigations by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found no safety problems related to the ignition switches. However, a key NHTSA official involved in these probes now says Ford withheld documents regulators should have seen before deciding against a wider or involuntary recall.
”It is likely we would not have closed the case,” said Michael B. Brownlee, the former director of the NHTSA’s defects investigative arm.
Nelda Rohling said a faulty ignition module cost her father his life in 1993.
Rohling was in the back seat of her family’s 1989 Ford Tempo as they ran errands near Lubbock, Texas, when the engine suddenly died.
”We started to cross the highway at a stop sign and the car dies,” said Rohling, who recalled that the vehicle had a history of stalling. ”Dad’s jiggling, jiggling to get the car on. We were looking at this car coming down on us.”
The impact killed Martin Allen, and severely injured Rohling and her mother, Margaret Allen. Ford settled their lawsuit for an undisclosed sum without admitting liability.
Some individual lawsuits are still headed for trial.
Six Tulare County, Calif., people and an unborn child were killed when their 1991 Tempo allegedly stalled and swerved into an irrigation canal in 1998. That car also had a history of stalling, according to their survivors’ attorney, Benjamin Schonbrun of Venice, Calif.
”We believe a jury will find that a TFI module stalling was the cause of this accident,” Schonbrun said.
One Ford owner says he walked away from a vehicle that he called a ”death trap” after too many close calls.
Gilbert Shaw of Blue Anchor, N.J., said his 1987 Ford Aerostar repeatedly stalled but the dealer could not find the problem. Tired of the headaches and near-death experiences, Shaw said he quit making payments to Ford and the company repossessed the minivan.
”We had almost been killed three different times in three different states,” Shaw said.
On the Net:
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: http://www.nhtsa.gov
Center for Auto Safety: http://www.autosafety.org/
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