Ford Motor Co. on Tuesday was hit with a class-action suit in Texas, where county officials are pressing for immediate safety improvements to the fuel systems of an estimated 25,000 Crown Victoria police cruisers owned by law enforcement agencies throughout the state.
The suit accused Ford of hiding a safety defect, adding fuel to a growing controversy over whether the location of the gas tanks in the cruisers--behind the rear axle--makes them unusually susceptible to fires in vehicle wrecks. At least a dozen officers reportedly have been killed and several others have suffered severe burns in fiery wrecks of the cruisers since 1992.
"As a result of this class action, we believe Ford can no longer ignore cries of the widows and children of police officers killed in survivable collisions, in which inadequately protected fuel tanks ruptured and exploded," said plaintiffs lawyer David Perry, who also has sued Ford on behalf of individual burn victims.
Ford officials said they had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment, except to repeat their contention that the vehicles are safe.
The suit was filed in Corpus Christi by Nueces County, which owns 106 of the cruisers, and is seeking to represent hundreds of other Texas police and sheriffs departments. A similar case filed in New Jersey seeks certification of a nationwide class of law enforcement agencies that operate the cruisers, about 400,000 of which are currently in use.
Plaintiffs and other critics say the fuel systems' poor design has resulted in officers burning to death who would have otherwise been protected by the hefty Crown Vics. There have been at least a dozen police deaths reported in public documents and news articles, but it's uncertain if the officers all burned to death or if some were killed on impact.
Ford says the gas tank fires have been extremely rare, and the result of violent, high-speed collisions that no fuel systems can be expected to withstand.
Nonetheless, Ford has acknowledged in court papers that it sought to fortify the tank, beginning with the 1998 model year, by increasing the thickness of the metal in the rear half of the tank by about 20%.
The change, which has not been publicized previously, was acknowledged by Ford in a pair of lawsuits stemming from the deaths of Florida state trooper Robert Smith in 1997 and Louisiana state trooper Hung Le in 1998. Both were rear-ended in 1996 Crown Victoria cruisers.
In response to written queries from lawyers for families of the officers, Ford said it increased the thickness of the rear half of the tanks from 0.75 millimeters to 0.91 millimeters. The change required a tooling cost of $28,000 plus $1.20 per vehicle, according to Ford, which said the change was intended, in part, "to increase [the tank's] overall robustness."
"The bottom line is they put the tank in a bad position," and the thinner tank also made it "more susceptible to puncture," said Glenn McGovern, lawyer for the family of Hung Le.
The Texas complaint focuses on a different change recommended by Ford last October in a notice to repair shops. The notice advised the shops to change a bolt and grind down a metal tab that may have punctured or ripped fuel tanks in some of the wrecks.
But Ford did not notify all owners, nor agree to pay for the modifications, except for cars still under warranty.
The suit seeks a court order compelling Ford to notify all Texas police agencies, many of which do not know the fixes are needed, the suit says. It also asks that the fixes be made at Ford's expense, and that the company be barred from making public statements minimizing the need for the repairs.
The suit says Ford internal documents show the firm has known since the 1980s that the worst place to put fuel tanks is behind the axle. Potentially dangerous for civilians, the location is particularly unsafe for police, who are exposed to rear-end collisions when they pull over to write tickets or help stranded motorists, the suit states.
Ford, with 85% of the market for police vehicles, sold 56,000 of the cruisers last year.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last November opened an investigation of the fuel systems of Ford "Panther" platform cars, including the civilian and police Crown Victorias, the Lincoln Town Car and the Mercury Grand Marquis. The probe is continuing.
Some Arizona agencies have frozen purchase orders, and the city of Phoenix is retrofitting its 735 Crown Vics with new, and purportedly safer, fuel systems.