Beasley Allen Law firm recently settled a wrongful death case against Continental Tire and Ford Motor Co. The lawsuit arose out of the death of an 8-month old girl in a vehicle rollover. The infant was killed when the car seat in which she was buckled was ejected from a Ford F-150 four-door pickup truck when the left rear door latch self-actuated and the door flew open. We learned a great deal about Ford’s handling of door handle-latch assembly defects during pretrial discovery in the case.
Our clients were heading back home to North Carolina from a family vacation in Mexico when the right rear Continental tire detreaded, causing the vehicle to go out of control and roll over in the median on I-65 North. During the rollover, the left rear door latch on the F-150 super crew cab self-actuated and flew open. This open door created additional room for the child safety seat to work its way loose from the vehicle’s seatbelt system. The car seat, with the baby still in it, was ejected, resulting in the infant’s death.
Our firm reached a partial settlement with Continental Tire during mediation, but elected to go to trial against Ford. During the trial, which started in an Alabama state court on January 14th, we proved that Ford knew an occupant was 20 times more likely to be ejected if a door came open. It was also established that Ford knew an occupant who is ejected is 40 times more likely to die. Although learning of Ford’s knowledge on this subject didn’t come as a surprise, we were shocked to learn that it had an extremely dangerous door handle-latch system. We set out to prove what Ford knew, when they knew it, and what they did about it. We learned during discovery that this dangerous condition actually exists in all F-150’s, Ford Expeditions, and Lincoln Navigators for the model years 1997-2001.
Door handle-latch systems on all passenger cars and light trucks are required to meet a federal standard known as FMVSS 206. This standard, which requires door handles to withstand inertial forces of 30g’s, was designed to prevent handles from unlatching the door during an accident and causing the door to fly open. A Ford engineer published a peer-reviewed paper three years before our vehicle was manufactured, stating that the 30g governmental requirement and Ford’s own internal requirements were grossly inadequate. The published paper in the SAE Journal stated that in foreseeable crashes, door handles would experience G-forces ten times greater than the 30g standard. The engineer had learned a great deal about the door latch problems in dealing with a defect in Ford Taurus door handles in the early 1990’s.
It was established during 2 ½ days of trial that Ford had never conducted any specific crash tests in order to determine how its latching systems performed in side impact accidents. It was also established that in the last 30 years, Ford had not conducted one single rollover test in order to determine how the safety features on any of its vehicles performed in a rollover crash.
During discovery we learned that doors were flying open on F-150’s, Expeditions, and Navigators during government-required testing for fuel systems and seatbelts. Ford looked into these door openings and discovered the handles on 1997-2001 model years for all three vehicles wouldn’t pass the minimum federal requirement under FMVSS 206 of 30g’s. Ford’s internal documents referred to these handles as being “defective.” In short order, Ford began plans for a recall involving over 1.6 million F-series pickup trucks at a cost to the company of some $70 million. Days before the recall was to be announced the very same engineer who wrote the 1997 SAE paper “discovered” a different way to determine whether the minimum federal standard was met.
Using a procedure that Ford had never used before, and has never used since, this engineer determined that the minimum standard could be met even with reduced spring tension. The alternative method used by this employee actually was not a new discovery, but dated back to a 1967 General Motors letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). As a result, even though Ford engineers had recommended it, no recall was issued and Ford “stood down” from the anticipated recall on March 30, 2000.
Ford then adopted a safety modification for the F-150, Navigator, and Expedition. The fix was to attach a counter-mass (weight) to the handle-latch assembly that opposes the inertial forces generated in a crash or impact. The variable cost of the fix was approximately 57 cents according to Ford documents. Interestingly, the counter-mass fix was the same one that Ford used in 1993 and 1994 to remedy a problem Ford was having with the doors on the Taurus unlatching and flying open in crash tests. Incidentally, the same engineer who wrote the SAE paper fixed the Taurus problem.
Despite the known safety concerns, Ford did not implement the fix in the F-150 involved in this recent case, nor did Ford delay the release of the 2001 Ford F-150 to implement the counter-mass safety fix. Ford documents indicate that Ford even considered retrofitting the 1997-2000 F-series, Expeditions, and Navigator vehicles that were in the field by adding the safety enhanced counter-mass. But, the retrofit never came about. One of the reasons given for not retrofitting the vehicles was the Expedition and Navigator had 100 percent autolock, which precludes inertial opening of outside door handles. Ford failed to acknowledge that autolock was not on all F-150’s. In fact, the vehicle involved in our case was manufactured without an autolock system.
One of the most disturbing things we learned during pretrial discovery was that three years before this F-150 was made, Ford knew the 30g standard was grossly inadequate – Ford knew that the handle spring tension in the 1997-2001 model year vehicles failed to pass the minimum federal standard. Yet, Ford has allowed these vehicles to remain on the road with their unsuspecting customers driving them. Many of these vehicles are still being driven by persons who will never know of the defect unless the vehicle is involved in a highway crash. To this day, Ford has never notified owners that their vehicles have a defective handle-latch assembly. Neither has Ford notified NHTSA of the defect.
During the discovery phase of this case, we obtained information that there are more than 50 lawsuits involving these defective door latches. We also learned from a Ford internal document that the company, instead of a recall, elected to go into “damage control.” Of course, “damage control” means settling lawsuits that involve serious and disabling injuries.
It was our pleasure to represent the family in this case. The mother and father and their two surviving children, who are now 13 and 11 respectively, were emotionally devastated by the loss of little Ashley, which is certainly understandable. Unfortunately, because of Ford’s decision not to fix these defective handles, this will surely happen to other families. There are millions of the F-150s, Expeditions, and Navigators described above that have defective door handle-latch assemblies and the owners don’t even know it. This is inexcusable and NHTSA should be actively involved in dealing with this matter. In fact, we are writing NHTSA and requiring a full investigation of this defect.