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Ford Accused of Concealing Evidence in Van Rollover Suits

The automaker is under pressure to explain records of tests it had said weren't performed.

January 17, 2003|Myron Levin | Times Staff Writer

Ford Motor Co. faces legal sanctions for allegedly concealing evidence in lawsuits involving one of its most controversial vehicles -- the 15-passenger van that has been the subject of government safety warnings and numerous death and injury claims stemming from rollover wrecks.

Ford is being pressed to explain why it can't locate records of key handling tests it says it performed before marketing the vans. The company says the test data probably were destroyed, a possibility that a federal judge called "very disturbing." Plaintiffs have been seeking the records to determine what the company knew about the vans' handling characteristics before it put them on sale.

Moreover, Ford lawyers and witnesses have been forced to retract statements made under oath in which they denied that Ford had conducted certain other tests of the vans' stability, which plaintiffs say show the vehicles were rollover-prone.

Company attorneys, who have begun to produce data from the tests that Ford had said were not conducted, say there was no intent to deceive or withhold information, and that sanctions should not be imposed.

Sanctions for concealing or destroying evidence can include fines or a court order excluding offending lawyers or witnesses from the case. On rare occasions, judges have ruled that the guilty party is liable by default, leaving juries only to decide the amount of damages.

Motions to impose sanctions against Ford are pending in at least two cases, in Illinois and Georgia. As word of Ford's disclosures spreads, the company could face problems in other cases around the country, where it has made similar statements to opposing lawyers and judges.

"The noose is tightening around their neck," said James Lowe, a plaintiffs attorney seeking sanctions against Ford in a case in Chicago. "Everybody's finding out we all were lied to."

The Chicago case was filed by the husband of a woman who died and three people who were injured in a rollover accident in Kentucky in 1996. The company has blamed the injuries on lack of seat belt use and a drowsy driver who lost control after striking a guard rail. U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman could rule on the sanctions motion as early as today.

Debate Over Safety

Ford is the leading maker of the large-capacity vans, which are widely used to shuttle commuters, church groups and college athletic squads. Over the years, vans produced by Ford and other automakers have been involved in hundreds of deadly rollovers. Ford has been sued at least 70 times, with accident victims claiming that the vans are defective because their high center of gravity makes them unusually rollover-prone -- particularly when they are used, as intended, to carry large numbers of people.

Ford says the vehicles are safe and has blamed injuries and deaths on driver errors and failure of passengers to wear seat belts. "We remain confident that this is a very safe vehicle," said Ford spokeswoman Carolyn Brown.

An estimated 500,000 of the 15-passenger vans currently are in use, with Ford's E-350 Super Club Wagons the most popular model. General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler have produced their own versions, though DaimlerChrysler announced last June that it was ceasing production, citing sluggish sales.

From 1990 through 2001, 647 people were killed and more than 1,200 were injured in van rollovers, according to an analysis of federal accident statistics by Alice and Randy Whitfield, Maryland-based statisticians. Most of the deaths, 492, occurred in single-vehicle rollovers, in which the vans flipped over without colliding with other vehicles. In many of these cases, drivers lost control after tire failures or abrupt steering maneuvers.

Two 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 on board. The reports highlighted a basic paradox of the vehicles, which are marketed as spacious carriers of people and cargo yet become tipsier under heavier loads -- a fact little known to consumers.

Two insurers -- Iowa-based GuideOne Insurance and the Colorado School Districts Self Insurance Pool -- recently stopped writing new policies on the vans because of concerns about safety and claims losses.

Lawsuits against the manufacturers have focused on what they knew, or should have known, about handling problems with the vans.

In the suits against Ford, the company has acknowledged that it exempted the big vans from its internal rollover resistance standard -- a guideline Ford applies to nearly all of its other vans, pickups and SUVs. (There is no federal vehicle stability standard.)

The standard requires Ford's light trucks to pass a computer-simulated stability test, known as the J turn. To pass, vehicles must perform a series of severe steering maneuvers at 55 mph without lifting two wheels off the ground.

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