Calling its conduct "totally reprehensible," a federal judge Tuesday imposed sanctions on Ford Motor Co. after finding that the company had "willfully concealed" evidence in a lawsuit stemming from a deadly rollover of one of its 15-passenger vans.
U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman ruled that Ford had falsely denied the existence of test data showing that its large-capacity vans are rollover-prone. As a result of Ford's "numerous misrepresentations to this court and plaintiffs," Gettleman said, he will instruct jurors that Ford had hidden the tests because they showed the "van was unsafe in handling and stability." The judge also ordered Ford to pay legal costs stemming from plaintiffs' efforts to obtain the tests.
The plaintiffs' attorneys had asked Gettleman to issue a default judgment against Ford, leaving jurors to decide only the amount of damages. Although he declined to go that far, Gettleman's ruling could make it extremely difficult for Ford to defend the case, thus increasing the odds of a settlement. The trial is scheduled for Feb. 24.
Ford said in a statement Tuesday that the injuries in the rollover case were caused by the driver of the van falling asleep and passengers riding unbelted.
"We look forward to trying this case on its merits and will prove" that the vans "are safe vehicles," the company said.
The judge ruled at the conclusion of a two-day sanctions hearing, after rejecting arguments by Gary Hayden, a managing attorney in Ford's office of general counsel, that the company had made "an honest mistake" when it claimed that the test data did not exist.
A similar sanctions motion also is pending against Ford in a Georgia van rollover case. But as word of Tuesday's ruling spreads, Ford will have to explain similar representations it has made in other cases around the country.
From 1990 through 2001, an estimated 647 people were killed and more than 1,200 injured in rollovers of 15-passenger vans produced by Ford, the market leader, and by General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler. Most of the deaths, 492, occurred in single-vehicle wrecks in which the vans flipped over without colliding with other vehicles.
Two safety agencies -- the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board -- have issued reports warning that the stability of the vans declines markedly with 10 or more people onboard.
Ford says the vans are safe and that injuries almost invariably result from driver errors and lack of seat belt use.
Through the years, Ford has faced at least 70 suits claiming that the vans are defective because their high center of gravity makes them prone to rollovers when a tire fails or during abrupt steering maneuvers. According to a Ford exhibit filed in court, at least 26 cases have been settled.
Tuesday's ruling came in Johnson vs. Ford, a case stemming from a rollover wreck in Kentucky that killed two passengers of a Ford E-350 Super Club Wagon and seriously injured several others. The case was filed on behalf of three of the injured and the husband of one of the dead.
Plaintiffs attorney James Lowe said the ruling should be seen in the context of the automaker's handling of the Explorer-Firestone tire disaster and the dispute over the safety of fuel systems in its Crown Victoria police cruisers.
"Ford has got to be more forthcoming about dealing with these safety defects," Lowe said. "People are dying."
Gettleman's ruling involved a computer model known as ADAMS that Ford uses to simulate vehicle performance, including a stability test known as the J-turn. To pass, vehicles must perform a series of severe steering maneuvers without lifting two wheels off the ground.
In Johnson and other cases, Ford witnesses and lawyers have said that although J-turn tests have been performed for other vehicles, the automaker had not done such tests or even built an ADAMS model for the large- capacity vans.
But the company changed its tune after a Ford engineer testified in a deposition in June that an ADAMS model had been created for the vans. The company has since acknowledged that the model was used to perform J-turn tests in March 2001.
In an affidavit last week, a plaintiffs expert who had reviewed the data said they showed the van experiencing a rollover and at least two instances of two wheels lifting off the ground.
Ford said the tests were not used to develop the existing vans, such as the '95 model in the Johnson case, but "for purposes of future product development." Therefore, the company said, it believed it had responded accurately to questions concerning the ADAMS tests.
Levin reported from Los Angeles and Beckham from Chicago.