Products Liability Law Daily Ford not liable for fatal car fire, jury finds
Monday, July 19, 2021

Ford not liable for fatal car fire, jury finds

By Joshua Frumkin, Esq.

A 2001 Ford Expedition's faulty cruise control system was not a proximate cause of the injuries, deaths, and property damage sustained in the fire.

A federal jury in Ohio exonerated Ford Motor Company of liability for a fatal car fire involving a 2001 Ford Expedition. According to the jury, although the claimant proved that the vehicle's speed control system was defective in design, he failed to establish proximate causation (Romans v. Ford Motor Co., July 15, 2021).

The claimant, a father, alleged in his complaint that the Speed Control Deactivation Switches (SCDSs) in the cruise control system of his Ford Expedition was faulty and that this defect was a proximate cause of a fatal fire. The fire was alleged to have spontaneously started in the vehicle on April 15, 2008, while it was parked in a carport attached to the family’s home. The father and his family were asleep at the time. While the father was able to escape, three others died in the fire.

Device history. In his complaint, the father alleged that Ford Motor Company learned in 1998 that underhood fires were occurring in its "Panther" platform of vehicles. The father argued that these fires were caused by an SCDS system manufactured by Texas Instruments Incorporated pursuant to Ford's specifications. Moreover, the father maintained that the cruise control system, including the SCDSs, in the Panther platform of vehicles was nearly identical to the systems installed in Expedition vehicles. The SCDSs were designed to prevent flammable brake fluid from migrating from the hydraulic subsystem to the electrical subsystem. The father alleged that Ford discovered the danger of the SCDS system after it participated in an investigation with Texas Instruments and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Ford subsequently issued a recall for affected Panther vehicles. The father also alleged that Texas Instruments warned Ford that, among other things, installing the SCDS into cruise control systems that were unnecessarily powered at all times could cause underhood fires. The father further asserted that, after the recall, Ford continued to install the SCDS system into its vehicles, including the 2001 Expedition, as reported by NHTSA in 2004 or 2005.

Product defect claim. In his strict liability product defect claim, the father alleged that the Expedition, including its cruise control system, was defective in that it materially deviated from Ford's design specifications, performance standards, or from other identical units at the time it left Ford's control. The father also alleged that the cruise control system was defective due to the excessive, foreseeable risks of underhood fires caused by the design of the system, which allegedly persisted even when the vehicle was not in use, not in regular use, and when the engine had been turned off for hours. The father asserted that Ford knew or should have known about these risks, failed to adequately warn consumers about the risks, and made misleading representations about the risks posed. The father also argued that the product defect was a proximate cause of his personal injuries, property loss, medical expenses, and other pain and mental suffering.

Survivorship, wrongful death claims. The father also pleaded a survivorship claim and a wrongful death claim against Ford, arguing that the Expedition and its faulty cruise control system proximately caused the death of three of his family members. He argued that Ford's failure to warn of the SCDSs' defects and the Expedition's failure to conform to Ford's explicit and/or implicit representations of safety proximately caused the fire in which his family perished.

Jury findings. The case was tried before a jury, which concluded that the father successfully proved by a preponderance of the evidence that the speed control system in the instant 2001 Ford Expedition was defective in design. However, the jury also found that the father failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the defective design was a proximate cause of the injuries, damages, and deaths sustained. As such, the jury rendered a verdict in favor of Ford.

The case is No. 2:16-cv-68.

Attorneys: Perry W. Doran, II (Vorys, Sater, Seymour And Pease, LLP) for Peter Romans. Elizabeth B. Wright (Thompson Hine & Flory) and Clay A. Guise (Dykema Gossett PLLC) for Ford Motor Co.

Companies: Ford Motor Co.

MainStory: TopStory JuryVerdictsNewsStory MotorVehiclesNews DesignManufacturingNews CausationNews OhioNews

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