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Crash-and-burn cruisers that kill: law enforcement officers across the country are being injured and killed when the special Ford Crown Victorias they drive catch fire. To build a successful case, lawyers must know the history of the vehicle's defective fuel-tank design.

Since the current generation of Ford's Crown Victoria Police Interceptor (CVPI) was introduced in 1992, at least 14 police officers have been burned to death in rear-impact, postcollision fuel-fed fires. Many others have suffered severe burns; a few have been fortunate enough to escape serious injury.

When law enforcement agencies asked for a solution, Ford reacted with its traditional "3-D" defense--deny, deceive, and delay. Although political and legal pressures have forced the company to implement improvements, the CVPIs sold today remain rolling fire bombs.

At press time, the most recent fatality, bad occurred on May 22, 2003, when Missouri state trooper Michael Newton was burned alive after his 2003 CVPI--which had less than 4,000 miles on it and was outfitted with all of Ford's most recent improvements--was struck in the rear and burst into flames. Newton's death occurred nearly one year after the first of numerous class action lawsuits on behalf of government agencies was filed against Ford, in New Jersey. (1)

CVPI fuel systems have ignited as a result of:

* puncture of the front of the fuel tank by suspension and axle components located forward of the tank

* puncture of the rear of the fuel tank by the trunk contents or the striking vehicle

* puncture of the side of the fuel tank by the frame rails that collapse inward toward the tank

* fuel escaping through vent valves due to internal pressure.

These problems are not new to Ford.

History of the defect

The CVPI's defective design has a long and well-documented history, dating back to the 1965 Ford Galaxie. The current cruiser is part of Ford's Panther-platform line of vehicles, which also includes the Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car. These cars are equipped with a vertical, behind-the-axle fuel tank derived from the 1965 Galaxie. Ford's 30 mph crash tests of the Galaxie in the 1960s resulted in catastrophic failure: The fuel tank was demolished.

The design of this fuel system has three basic problems:

* The tank is located behind the rear axle in the vehicle's crush zone where, in a collision, the tank is vulnerable to flying fragments.

* The tank is surrounded by a "hazardous environment" of relatively sharp objects that may puncture the tank in a collision.

* The rear structure of the vehicle lacks "energy management"--it does not sufficiently absorb the energy, of a vehicle that strikes the CVPI from behind.

Technical papers published by the Society of Automotive Engineers--and presented as early as 1966 at the 10th Annual Stapp Car Crash Conference--documented the danger of tank tearing and puncture. (2)

For example, in 1967, Professor Derwyn Severy of UCLA conducted a 50 mph car-to-car rear-impact crash test with two Ford Galaxies. The collision resulted in severe rupture and catastrophic fuel spillage that, when ignited, created a fireball that entered the passenger compartment before the vehicles had come to rest. When Severy published his results, he recommended locating the fuel tank outside the crush zone and removing puncture-producing objects from the vicinity of the tank. (3) Early Ford crash tests conducted between 1966 and 1969 also documented the danger.

In the early 1970s, Ford crash-tested vehicles with relocated tanks, with successful results. By the early 1980s, the company had manufactured vehicles with fuel tanks located in front of the rear axle, and they performed well in the crash tests the company conducted. Ford ultimately concluded that the "preferred location" for the fuel tank is in front of the rear axle and underneath the rear seat. (4)

Since 1980, almost all new Ford cars sold in the United States--both front- and rear-wheel drive models--have fuel tanks located in front of the rear axle. Only the Panther-platform vehicles and the Ford Mustang still have fuel tanks located in the crush zone.

Hostile environment

For decades, internal Ford engineering documents have discussed the need to reduce the risk of objects with sharp corners puncturing the tank and recommended that such objects be made with rounded comers. (5) Notwithstanding this 30-year legacy of automotive engineering knowledge, Ford manufactured its 1992-2003 CVPIs with numerous sharp components that have repeatedly punctured fuel tanks.

For the 1998 model year, Ford changed to a "Watts" rear suspension design for the Panther platform. In rear impacts, the shock-absorber mounting brackets utilized in this design tend to rotate to the rear toward the fuel tank, substantially increasing the likelihood of puncture. Ford's internal "certification" of the vehicles that used the Watts suspension relied on an internal crash test that the vehicle failed to pass. (6)

In October 2001, Ford issued a Technical Service Bulletin (TSB) that acknowledged the puncture problem. The TSB called for replacing a sharp, "hex-headed" parking-brake cable bolt with a smooth, round-headed bolt, and for filing down sharp tabs on certain suspension components. (7) Although minimal, these improvements would have prevented at least some officers' injuries and deaths had they been incorporated into the car's original design.

Yet these improvements offered no protection against tank punctures from the Watts suspension or trunk contents. Their ineffectiveness was tragically demonstrated when Officer Robert Nielsen, driving a "repaired" vehicle, died by fire in Arizona on June 12, 2002. Nielsen was the first victim in a series of fires last year involving vehicles that had received the TSB "fix."

Shields and bladders

In 1999, the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP), which had lost at least one officer in a fatal CVPI fire, issued a report on rear impacts involving officers (8) and approached Ford, seeking a solution to the problem. The FHP suggested that Ford add either shields to protect the tank or racing-type bladders--flexible, puncture-resistant containers that expand and contract to absorb collision forces--to contain the fuel. In a series of presentations in 2000 and 2001, Ford denied any problem and asserted falsely that shields could not protect the tank and that racing bladders could not be used without a complete redesign of the vehicle. But shields have been used in other Ford products, including the Mustang, to protect fuel tanks from puncture since at least 1970.

In March 2002, then-Attorney General Janet Napolitano of Arizona--where one officer had already been injured in a CVPI fire--wrote a personal letter to Ford CEO William Clay Ford, demanding that the vehicles be recalled. After two more officers died that spring--Nielsen in Arizona and another in Florida--both states announced moratoriums on the purchase of CVPIs. The company responded by sending representatives to meet with Napolitano.

In June 2002, the automaker told Napolitano that action would be taken within 90 days of the meeting. The following September, Ford announced that it would make an "optional upgrade kit" available without charge for CVPIs in police service.

The upgrade kit--consisting of several small shields attached to the axle, differential, fuel tank, and trunk floor to guard the front of the fuel tank against puncture--demonstrates the falsity of Ford's earlier statements that shields could not be used to protect the tank. If implemented earlier, the optional upgrade kit would have prevented at least two fatal fires.

Also in mid-2002, the Phoenix police force learned that racing-type bladders could be used in CVPIs and even retrofitted to vehicles already on the road. Fuel Safe--a Bend, Oregon, company--had provided the bladders for the Ford Mustang Cobra R, a special racing version of the vehicle. Fuel Safe offered to provide bladder tanks to be retrofitted into CVPIs, a program the Phoenix police three implemented in fall 2002. Although Ford continues to claim that bladder technology cannot be used in the cruisers, the city has installed bladders in more than 1,000 vehicles already in service, and it installs one in each new CVPI it purchases.

Although the free optional upgrade shields--now installed in about 350,000 CVPIs in use nationwide--have prevented puncture of the front of the fuel tank, rear-impact punctures have continued. By the beginning of June 2003, at least seven vehicles equipped with the new shields had suffered rear impacts that produced tank punctures, fires, and deaths.

Most of the fires in newly shielded vehicles have resulted from punctures of the fuel tank by trunk contents. In the automaker's 2002 meeting with Napolitano, it pledged to develop a device to shield the rear of the tank. In September 2002, the company announced that it had developed a "trunk pack," to be available by the end of the year for optional purchase, estimated at $50 per vehicle.

Trunk packs did not actually become available until June 2003. By that time, the manufacturer's suggested price had risen to $250 per vehicle. Ford's initial plans were to manufacture about 12,000 trunk packs annually, not enough to retrofit the 350,000 CVPIs in service. Ford discourages purchase of trunk packs by continuing to assert that the car is safe without them. (9)

Cities and counties around the country have brought class actions seeking to force Ford to provide remedies such as trunk packs to law enforcement without cost, to admit that the devices are necessary for safety, and to encourage their installation. (10) Last spring, the National Association of Attorneys General formed a task force to investigate the issue.

Business as usual

Why didn't Ford remove puncture sources or shield the fuel tank during the design process? The answer lies in the automaker's continued policy of placing profit above safety: Long-standing Ford policy is to minimize safety expenditures on items required by existing or anticipated government regulations or competitive pressure. (11) As a result, the company's safety testing of the CVPIs was inadequate.

In the late 1970s, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) began testing rear-impact fuel-system integrity. The test involved crashing a barrier moving at 35 mph into a stationary vehicle, generating approximately the same force as a 52 mph car-to-car collision. In 1979, General Motors adopted a 50 mph car-to-car collision test requirement, and two years later, Ford adopted a "30/50 program," in which it subjected its vehicles to the NCAP and GM tests.

These tests, adopted when the national speed limit was 55 mph, have remained unchanged, even though many states have raised the speed limit to 70 mph or 75 mph. Even during the 1970s and 1980s, Ford was held liable in cases involving 60 mph to 80 mph impacts, indicating the inadequacy of a 50 mph test. (12) In 1994, the Florida Highway Patrol requested that Ford conduct rear-end crash tests at 75 mph for all of its CVPIs. Ford did not respond to the request.

The lack of adequate testing is particularly troubling for vehicles designed for police use. Ford advertises and sells the CVPI as a "unique" specialty vehicle that is designed to withstand the rigors of severe law-enforcement duty, including a vastly increased exposure to the risk of impact resulting from three circumstances:

* Increased hours on the road. Civilian vehicles are typically driven only 30 minutes to an hour per day. Most police vehicles are in service two or three shifts per day (18-24 hours).

* High-speed driving. CVPIs are used on high-speed roadways and driven at higher-than-normal speeds much more frequently than civilian vehicles.

* Stopping on roadways. Police vehicles are often stopped on or near high-speed roadways, increasing the vehicles' exposure to severe rear impact.

Despite these risks, the fuel-system integrity of 1992-2003 CVPIs was identical to that of civilian vehicles. As part of the Panther platform, the cruisers underwent the standard 50 mph car-to-car impact test, and nothing more. Ford's testing program was--and still is--inadequate for civilian vehicles, and grossly inadequate for the "unique," high-speed CVPI.

But Ford directives from Chairman of the Board Harold Poling have prevented spending money to improve safety. For example:
 The chairman of the board commented
 that for the SN 95 [Panther platform] and
 all other programs, it would be desirable to
 reduce costs related to items designed to
 achieve or exceed compliance with regulatory
 [safety and environmental] requirements
 to as low a level as possible to maximize
 our future pricing flexibility vis-a-vis
 competition. (13)


Ford's responses to officers' deaths and injuries in CVPIs have been no more than half-measures. The optional upgrade kit does not provide needed shielding for the rear or sides of the tank. Ford otters the trunk pack as a costly option rather than a necessary safety remedy. The company has failed to provide frame shields to protect the sides of the tanks and has refused to acknowledge the need to strengthen "sender unit" attachments to prevent fuel from escaping through vent valves due to internal pressure.

Thus, the 3-D defense--deny, deceive, and delay--continues. Perhaps only litigation will bring about needed safety improvements. In the meantime, tragically, law enforcement officers continue to die in CVPI fires.

Notes

(1.) City of New Brunswick v. Ford Motor Co., No. L-4608-02 MT (N.J., Middlesex County Super. Ct. amended complaint filed May 31, 2002).

(2.) See, e.g., Harry S. Robertson, A New Look at Fuel System Design Criteria, SOC'Y AUTO. ENG'RS PAPER NO. 660794 (1966).

(3.) Derwyn M. Severy, Vehicle Design for Passenger Protection from High-Speed Rear End Collisions, SOC'Y AUTO. ENG'RS PAPER NO. 680774 (1968); Derwyn M. Severy, Automotive Collision Fires, SOC'Y AUTO. ENG'RS PAPER NO. 741108 (1974).

(4.) Deposition testimony of Jack Ridenour, Cruz v. Ford Motor Co., No. C200006069, at 201. (Ariz., Pima County Super. Ct. Nov. 15, 2001).

(5.) E.g., Ford Motor Co. Interoffice Memorandum, Vehicle Development Technology, from E.J. Rohn to H.G. Brilmyer (June 26, 1979).

(6.) Ford Motor Co. Crash Test C-10477 (performed Nov. 15, 1996; reported Jan. 15, 1998).

(7.) FORD MOTOR CO., TECHNICAL SERV. BULL. NO. 01-21-14 (2001).

(8.) FLA. HIGHWAY PATROL, PATROL CAR CRASHES: REAR-END COLLISION STUDY 1999 (1999).

(9.) Letter from Richard D. Cupka Jr., Leader, CVPI Technical Task Force, Ford Motor Co., to Law Enforcement Customers (May 2003), available at www.cvpi.com/pdfs/SafetyMessage.pdf (last visited Sept. 26, 2003).

(10.) E.g., Nueces County, Tex. v. Ford Motor Co., No. 02-61182-2 (Tex., Nueces County Dist. Ct. filed July 2, 2002); Cities & Police Dep'ts of Malvern & N. Little Rock, Ark. v. Ford Motor Co., No. CV-2002-199-2 (Ark., Hot Springs County Cir. Ct. filed July 26, 2002).

(11). Historical Safety Design Cost, Major Product Matters Meeting, Final Agenda, at 2 (Sept. 1, 1971); Product Planning Committee Meeting Minutes (Mar. 5, 1991).

(12.) See, e.g., Ford Motor Co. v. Durrill, 714 S.W.2d 329 (Tex. Ct. App. 1986).

(13.) Product Planning Committee Meeting Minutes, supra note 11.

DAVID L. PERRY is a partner with Perry & Haas in Corpus Christi, Texas.

PATRICK J. McGRODER III is a partner with Gallagher & Kennedy in Phoenix.
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Author:McGroder, Patrick J., III
Publication:Trial
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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