Ford Motor Co. has settled a lawsuit over a fatal rollover of a 15-passenger van, avoiding a trial before a federal judge who said Ford's concealment of evidence in the case "borders on criminal."
The settlement this week in Chicago came after a Ford test- driver acknowledged he had flipped one of the vans on its side, contrary to previous testimony by Ford that the vans had never rolled over in a test. It was the last straw for U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman, who already had vowed to impose sanctions on Ford for its prior attempts to hide data on the stability of the vans.
"Somebody is committing perjury ... or at least may be committing perjury," Gettleman said, according to a transcript of a pretrial hearing Feb. 14. "I don't want to believe a corporation like Ford does stuff like this," but "I'm being convinced against my own instincts.
"It almost borders on criminal, to be honest with you," he said.
The Chicago case, Johnson vs. Ford, stemmed from a rollover wreck in Kentucky that killed two passengers in a Ford E-350 Super Club Wagon and seriously injured several others. Trial was to begin Monday.
But at the pretrial hearing, Gettleman said he was "very, very close" to finding Ford liable by default, and holding a trial only on damages. The threat became moot Tuesday, when lawyers in the case presented the settlement to the judge.
Ford witnesses "have always testified truthfully about the facts," company spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes said Thursday in a statement.
"It is important to remember that this accident was caused by the driver falling asleep at the wheel and that those injured most seriously were not wearing seat belts," Vokes said.
Late last month, Ford settled another van rollover case in Georgia before a judge could impose sanctions for similar complaints about hiding evidence. Disclosures in these lawsuits could reverberate across the country in van cases in which Ford has made some of the statements that Gettleman deemed false.
"When a United States district judge says that Ford's conduct borders on criminal ... there will be fallout," said James Lowe, a lawyer for plaintiffs in the Johnson case. "The legacy of this case will be that people will say that this is a company that will stop at nothing to conceal evidence of safety defects."
An estimated 500,000 of the 15-passenger vans are on the road; they are widely used by church groups, athletic squads and van pools. Besides Ford, the top producer, General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler have their own versions.
From 1990 through 2001, 647 people died in rollovers of the vans, an analysis of federal statistics showed. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has warned that with the vans' high center of gravity, their stability declines markedly with 10 or more people on board.
Ford and its rivals say the vans are safe, and that deaths and injuries stem largely from driver errors and failure to use seat belts.
Gettleman blasted Ford over the testimony of Richard Schettler, a Ford engineer who described an incident that occurred in 1990 when he drove one of the vans through a slalom course. As he zigzagged around a series of cones at about 40 mph, the van lifted up on two wheels and then tipped over on its side, Schettler revealed in his Jan. 22 deposition.
Schettler blamed himself, saying he was training as a test-driver at the time.
"It wasn't the vehicle's fault, it was mine," he said.
Another Ford engineer who witnessed the crash, Donald D. Thrasher, previously had testified that the vans had never rolled over in a handling test.
"That hasn't happened ... to anybody at Ford," Thrasher had said, adding, "Our vehicles don't roll over."
On Thursday, Vokes said "the confusion" involved whether the term 'rollover' covers a van merely tipping on its side.