Ford Unintended Acceleration Hopping that Class Action Train

It’s Ford’s turn to take a ride down the Unintended Acceleration (UA) class action track. The civil lawsuit, filed in the southern district of West Virginia, with plaintiffs from 14 states, seeks economic damages from any Ford vehicle manufactured between 2002 and 2010 equipped with an electronic throttle control system but not a brake override system. This civil lawsuit seeks economic damages only on behalf of Ford owners and lessors who relied on Ford’s representations of vehicle safety in choosing their products.

As in the recently settled Toyota MDL, the remedy is a brake override system. Hopefully Ford will design one that works in most UA scenarios – unlike Toyota’s version, which does not override the command to accelerate if the brake is already depressed when the UA occurs or at low speeds. (Sorry, all you plate-glass-breaking, drive –through, curb-hopping Toyota parkers who have the misfortune of experiencing a UA event while riding the brakes into a parking spot.)

While Toyota has gotten most of the ink on UA, it is hardly the only automaker grappling with electronic malfunctions in its vehicles. A casual survey of some of pending or recently retired National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigations and news stories about wild terrifying trips on our nation’s highways shows that Hyundai, Mercedes Benz, Honda, Ford and others have been associated with Unintended Acceleration and Unintended Braking.

Ford, you may recall, was the target in 2011 of Judge William T. Swigert’s ire for lying to the court, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as well as its own expert witnesses on its knowledge of UA. Swigert, Senior Judge of the Florida’s Fifth Judicial Circuit, set aside a jury verdict in favor of Ford in Stimpson v. Ford, because the automaker defrauded the court 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.

Stimpson v. Ford emanated from an October 28, 2003 crash. The suit alleged that Ralph Stimpson’s 1991 Ford Aerostar suddenly accelerated from the carport, as he put the van into gear. The Aerostar hurtled more than 100 feet, and crashed into a utility pole. Peggy Stimpson remains paralyzed as the result of her injuries.

Swigert ordered a new trial in which the jury would only consider compensatory and punitive damages in Stimpson v. Ford. The automaker has appealed the ruling. Attorney Molly O’Neill with Thomas J. Murray Law in Sandusky, Ohio, who represented the Stimpson family, said that the appeal is still pending.

Swigert wrote a 51-page decision detailing Ford’s systematic concealment of UA problems, stretching back to the 1970s. Internal Ford documents, presented in the case, showed that Ford had studied the problem of electromagnetic interference and unintended acceleration and worked to resolve it. Ford did its best to cover its tracks, even as real world incidents continued to occur, destroying field technical reports that identified electromagnetic interference with the cruise control servo as a cause of unintended acceleration and misleading its own experts, who have repeatedly testified in other cases that driver error had to be the cause of such events.

The litigation is likely to put Ford electronics under the oscilloscope, while Office of Defects Investigation probes tend to bring root causes into focus with the intensity of drugstore cheaters.

Speaking of cheating – Corporate Counsel’s story of Toyota’s prevarications around its electronically based Unintended Acceleration problems, as revealed in a raft of leaked internal documents got another airing in the San Diego Tribune, by tech columnist Phillip Baker. His assessment of the Toyota UA saga? A cover-up, aided and abetted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It's worth a read.

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