Ford Motor Co. went on trial Monday to answer allegations that it made a police cruiser that exploded in high-speed rear-end collisions and misrepresented the vehicle as safe.
Illinois police departments, suing as a group, claim that Ford's Crown Victoria Police Interceptor is vulnerable to fuel-fed fires after rear-end collisions because the gas tank is placed behind the rear axle. The departments said in court documents that an alternative placement of the gas tank or a shield on the tank could have prevented deaths and injuries to police officers in post-collision fires.
The lawsuit, being tried in Belleville, Ill., is the first to go to trial of more than a dozen class actions brought against Ford by police agencies over the Crown Victoria. Such suits are also pending in New Jersey, Texas, Louisiana and at least 12 other states. Lawyers and police officials in the other states are watching the Illinois case, said attorney Michael Ryan, who represents Florida police departments suing Ford.
"A favorable result will certainly embolden the existing police departments and lead to new police department lawsuits," Ryan said. "But an unfavorable result will not deter the police departments from seeking trial dates in their local jurisdictions. The police departments that filed lawsuits against Ford are extraordinarily unhappy with Ford's response to the risks presented by this car to their officers."
The trial began Monday with jury selection. Lawyers for Illinois police departments said in interviews before trial that company documents and depositions of Ford executives support their claims of defect and fraud.
"The vehicles actually have the same defect as the Pinto," said police department attorney David Perry. "Ford has fraudulently concealed its knowledge of the dangers and defects in these vehicles," he said. In the 1970s Ford was sued by customers who made similar allegations about fires resulting from rear-end collisions involving its Pinto model.
Perry said he intended to use at trial a January deposition of Chief Executive William Clay Ford Jr. in which Ford said he was unaware of many of the police department complaints about the Crown Victoria. Such ignorance bolsters claims that the company was unconcerned about police car safety, Perry said.
"We expect to prove that fraud is condoned by Ford at the highest levels and that, since this was brought to Mr. William Clay Ford's personal attention, he has done nothing to prevent recurrences."
There is no defect or fraud, said Ford attorney Doug Lampe. Many of the departments suing Ford, including the lead plaintiff in the Illinois lawsuit, continue to order Crown Victorias from the company, Lampe said.
"The Police Interceptor is the vehicle of choice for police departments, including Mr. Perry's clients," he said. "They apparently don't believe his allegations either."
Ford has about 85% of the market for police vehicles in the U.S. The market share hasn't changed since the filing of lawsuits, Lampe said. About 350,000 of the vehicles are still owned by police departments, according to Ford.
The Illinois police departments are seeking $89 million in damages for the cost of retrofitting 21,000 police cars, as well as punitive damages, said Patricia Murphy, one of their attorneys. The Illinois class covers most police agencies in the state that own Ford Crown Victoria police cars, she said. There are no personal injury claims in the lawsuit.
Ninety-seven of Illinois' 102 county police departments sued Ford, as did 1,115 of the state's 1,175 municipalities.
Ford shares rose 14 cents to $14.10 on the New York Stock Exchange.