NHTSA’s “Tough” Stance on Ford Recall – Eight Years Too Late

Well, the agency’s done it again. No longer can reporters call a $17.3 million civil penalty against a manufacturer the “largest fine in agency history.” Nope, now it’s the new normal. This time it was Ford who got rapped with NHTSA’s multi-million dollar automaker swatter, over failing to recall 2001-2004 Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute vehicles to correct an earlier recall repair to the accelerator cable that actually exacerbated the original problem.

Did you follow that? If, not, don’t worry. We’re gonna lay it out in all of its glorious detail.

Like just about everything NHTSA does these days, the path to the fine follows a long roundabout route that reaches its crescendo in a high-profile death. In this case it was Saige Bloom, the 17-year-old driver of a 2002 Escape who died in an unintended acceleration crash in Payson, Arizona on January 27, 2012. Bloom was driving her new used car home, with her mother following in another car, after they purchased the Escape. Bloom lost control of the vehicle, which rolled over. Bloom died of her injuries in the hospital.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, which petitioned the agency to open a Recall Query after Bloom’s death, says that the monetary penalty didn’t go far enough.

“To me, if there was ever a case for a criminal penalty this was it. It meets the requirements of the TREAD act – there was a death,” Ditlow said “In fact, there have been at least three deaths. Who knows how many there are, in reality? There’s an 8-year gap between the first recall and the fine.”

But, as these things tend to go, there won’t be anything as shocking as a criminal prosecution, just a blip on the bottom line. Ford denied any responsibility in the settlement agreement. To quote:

Ford Offers “False” Testimony; Alliance Swears to It

From the annals of chutzpah: On March 12, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers filed a friend of the court brief to head off a potentially disastrous breach in the auto industry’s carefully constructed dam around the causes of unintended acceleration (UA). To wit, there are no electronic causes of unintended acceleration. This phenomenon, as the industry and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would have it, is solely caused by drivers hitting the wrong pedal and mechanical causes, such as pedal entrapment and bound Bowden cables. Electronic systems cannot have electronic malfunctions that can go undetected or cause UA, got that?

William T. Swigert, the Senior Judge of the Florida’s Fifth Judicial Circuit, however, had no respect for industry/government mythology. He set aside a jury verdict in favor of Ford Motor Company, after deciding that Ford’s victory in Stimpson v. Ford was won with “false and misleading” testimony and defrauded the federal government to boot, by claiming that it knew of no other cause of unintended acceleration than driver error and concealing years of testing that showed that electromagnetic interference was a frequent root cause of UA in Ford vehicles. (See How Ford Concealed Evidence of Electronically-Caused UA and What it Means Today)

How Ford Concealed Evidence of Electronically-Caused UA and What it Means Today

Last month, we reported a Florida circuit judge’s extraordinary decision to set aside a civil jury verdict in favor of Ford Motor Company, based on evidence and testimony that Ford had concealed an electronic cause of unintended acceleration from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – and its own expert witnesses. Judge William T. Swigert’s 51-page decision in Stimpson v Ford also outlines how decades of the automaker’s dissembling to limit its liability in civil lawsuits helped to mire the thinking about root causes of unintended acceleration in the limited context of mechanical agency, even as the electronic sophistication – and the potential for defects and unanticipated interactions between systems – in vehicles grew.

That a large corporation would conceal a deadly problem to protect its interests is hardly news – although the systemic and exacting strategies Ford employed in this case are notable. What makes this story important is how Ford also re-wrote the history on this issue and helped to shape the agency’s thinking about an ongoing problem for decades hence. We have only the public record regarding Toyota UA at our disposal – and precious little of that has actually been made public – so we can’t know how Toyota has assessed its own UA problem; if and what parallels in corporate misdirection might be drawn between Ford and Toyota. But one can see how Ford’s actions back in the 1980s still resonate with the agency today and how it has kept NHTSA from advancing its knowledge in electronic causes of UA that are not already detected by the vehicle diagnostics.

The Emergence of a Defect in the Age of Audi SUA

As recounted in the Judge Swigert’s order, the history of Ford and unintended acceleration goes back to 1973, when Ford’s cruise control was under development. Ford Engineer William Follmer “warned about the risk posed by electromagnetic interference, and cautioned that ‘to avoid disaster’ it was imperative to incorporate failsafe protection against EMI in the system’s design.” In 1976, two Ford engineers obtained a patent describing a design for the cruise control system's printed circuit board to reduce the risk of a sudden acceleration posed by EMI.

Judge Finds Ford Fraudulently Concealed Electronic Causes of Unintended Acceleration

The Senior Judge of the Florida’s Fifth Judicial Circuit has set aside a jury verdict in favor of Ford Motor Company, blasting the automaker for defrauding the court and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration by claiming that it knew of no other cause of unintended acceleration than driver error and for concealing years of testing that showed that electromagnetic interference was a frequent root cause of UA in Ford vehicles.

In his withering decision, Senior Judge William T. Swigert of the Fifth Judicial Circuit in Sumter County, Florida ordered a new trial in which the jury would only consider compensatory and punitive damages in Stimpson v. Ford. The post-trial order is a victory for Attorney Thomas J. Murray, of Murray & Murray based in Sandusky, Ohio, who represented the Stimpson family.

The case concerned an October 28, 2003 crash which left Peggy Stimpson permanently paralyzed. Her husband alleged that he was unable to stop the couple’s 1991 Ford Aerostar, when it suddenly accelerated from their carport as he put the van into gear. The Aerostar hurtled more than 100 feet, and crashed into a utility pole.

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