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Old 02-04-2005, 10:17   #1 (permalink)
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US:2005 will be big year for Explorer trials

2005 will be big year for Explorer trials
Plantiffs attorneys sharing internal Ford documents

Automotive News

Ford Motor Co. faces more than two dozen civil trials this year challenging the safety of the Explorer sport-utility.

Plaintiffs in those cases, and hundreds more, are using internal Ford documents released after the Firestone tire crisis in 2000 to back claims that the Explorer is defective and that Ford balked at making crucial changes, Bloomberg News reports.

Plaintiffs attorneys have developed a network for sharing the documents among hundreds of court cases. Information in the internal documents obtained by Bloomberg includes:

A recommendation in 1993 by Ford engineers Jessy Li and James Cheng that the Explorer's roof supports be strengthened. Stronger supports would prevent the roof from collapsing in a rollover crash. Ford did not make any changes because the roof support met government standards.


A 1999 warning by Ford engineers in Venezuela that rollover crashes in Explorers, related to suspension flaws, caused nine deaths. In 1996, Ford engineers wrote that the issue could be taken care of by moving the shock absorbers closer to the wheels. The change was not made.

Attorney Theodore Boutrous told Bloomberg that the Explorer meets all safety regulations and that debate among engineers is an important part of the product development process. Boutrous, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP in Los Angeles, works for Ford handling appeals of court cases.

"It didn't mean Ford wasn't acting in good faith," he told Bloomberg. "When talking about safety in the science of engineering, one of the key issues is debate."

In its defense, Ford has cited government data that shows that the death rate in rollover crashes is lower for the Explorer than the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Chevrolet Blazer.

Yet the automaker lost two Explorer lawsuits last year -- one in San Diego with a $369 million judgment that was later reduced to $150 million, and one in Fort Myers, Fla., with a judgment of $5.3 million. Ford settled the Florida case for an undisclosed amount.

In its financial reports, Ford does not estimate how much all these lawsuits would specifically cost the company.

In 2001, in one of the biggest recalls in U.S. history, former Ford CEO Jacques Nasser announced that the automaker was spending $3 billion to replace all 13 million Firestone tires on Explorers at the time.

More than 270 highway deaths were reported from accidents resulting from the separation of the vehicle's tire treads.

While the Firestone tire case put a spotlight on the Explorer's handling capabilities, plaintiffs attorneys have also been questioning the safety of the SUV's suspension, roof and seat belt systems, according to the Bloomberg report.

Since the Firestone tire debacle, Ford has made some design changes to the Explorer, with later models wider at the base and featuring a lower center of gravity.
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