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Arguments Begin in Suit Against Ford

May 19, 1999| From Associated Press

A class-action lawsuit against Ford Motor Co. went to trial Tuesday over allegations that the auto maker hid a potentially dangerous stalling problem from government regulators and 3 million California customers.

It is the largest class-action suit to go to trial against a U.S. auto maker. Lawyers estimate the trial will last two months.

Ford, the No. 2 auto maker worldwide, decided in 1982 to save $4 per vehicle by mounting an ignition device, a thick film ignition module, or TFI, over the engine despite warnings from an engineer that high temperatures would cause the device to fail and stall the engine, attorney Paul D. Nelson told an Alameda County Superior Court jury.

He said the warning was quickly borne out by a flood of complaints from customers and dealers, replacement of the devices in 15 million vehicles over 17 years, and high-level company studies confirming the problem--studies the company purportedly withheld from federal safety officials and the public.

The suit seeks $3 billion in damages under a California law requiring businesses to pay $1,000 for each deceptive sale or illegal practice.

"The TFI module is essential to safe operation of the car," Nelson said in a nearly 2 1/2-hour opening statement. "Ford knew early on that it would fail at extremely high rates and knew how to fix it . . . but had to keep it secret."

Ford lawyer Warren Platt denied any safety problem, product defect or deception.

"This is the very best location for the TFI from the standpoint of reliability and performance," a mounting chosen by 70% of manufacturers that use the TFI, Platt told the jury.

The suit covers owners and former owners in California of Ford vehicles for model years 1983-95, when the TFI mounting was used.

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