Family, Ford settle wrongful-death lawsuit

 Thursday, January 19, 2006Sisters were killed when limo was hit from behind, caught fire
By James RomoserJOURNAL REPORTER

The family of three sisters who burned to death in a limousine wreck on Interstate 40 reached an out-of-court settlement with Ford Motor Co. yesterday, ending a wrongful-death lawsuit over the design of the vehicle's fuel tank.

Brenda and Ricky Howell of Mocksville said in their lawsuit that their daughters - Tara Howell Parker, 29; Mysti Howell Poplin, 24; and Megan Elizabeth Howell, 16 - would have survived if the limo had been equipped with a basic safety shield to protect the fuel tank in rear-end collisions. The lawsuit alleged that Ford was aware of the risk of fire in Lincoln Town Car limousines and similar cars but failed to correct it.

The women died Sept. 10, 2003, when the limo they were riding in was hit from behind in Guilford County by a speeding pickup driven by a drunken driver. The impact ruptured the limo's fuel tank, causing the vehicle to ignite while the sisters were trapped inside.

David Perry, the lead attorney representing the Howells, said that the two sides reached an agreement yesterday about noon.

Both sides declined to comment on the terms of the settlement.

Perry said that the family is relieved that the case is over. Jury selection for the trial would have begun next week in Davie Superior Court.

"They are very emotional about the whole situation, of course," Perry said. "The lawsuit was a very emotional time, but it was something they had to do because they wanted to call to everybody's attention the very serious issues about these shields."

In a statement released yesterday, Ford admitted no responsibility for the sisters' deaths and said that its Town Car limousines have a strong safety record.

"Unfortunately, there is no vehicle on the road that can adequately protect people in such collisions or against drunk drivers," the statement said.

Jeffrey McFayden, the driver of the pickup, was convicted last year of involuntary manslaughter and is serving a five-to-six year prison sentence.

At least 15 other lawsuits have been filed around the country challenging Ford on the safety of the fuel-tank system in its popular "Panther" line, which includes the Lincoln Town Car, the Crown Victoria and the Mercury Grand Marquis.

All but one of the lawsuits have been settled out of court.

Last April, in the only case that has gone to trial, a jury in Illinois ordered Ford to pay more than $43 million to the family of a man who died when his Town Car sedan caught fire. Ford has appealed the verdict.

Unlike most modern cars, the Panther vehicles have fuel tanks behind the rear axle in an area known as the "crush zone," causing the tanks to be more vulnerable to being punctured in high-speed rear collisions.

According to data from the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer-advocacy group in Washington, more than 50 people nationwide have died because of wreck fires in Panther vehicles. Many of those deaths have been law-enforcement officers who were using Crown Victoria police cruisers, the nation's most popular police vehicle.

In 2002, federal regulators investigating the Panther cars determined that the cars did not contain a safety defect.

That same year, Ford began installing fuel-tank safety shields on its Crown Victoria police cars. The company's stated reason was that police cars have a much higher risk than other cars of being involved in a high-speed rear collision, because police cars are often stopped on the sides of highways.

"Basically, the shields are designed to prevent punctures when you get a 75 miles-per-hour-or-above crash. This generally doesn't happen in civilian vehicles," said Dan Jarvis, a spokesman for Ford.

However, last September, with the Howell lawsuit approaching, Ford began offering the same shield to owners of Town Car limos.

Perry said that development was a direct result of the Howells' lawsuit. The company vigorously denied that claim.

Perry said that the Howell family hopes that Ford will extend the installation of the shields beyond police cars and limos to all of its Panther vehicles.

"Ford ought to go farther," Perry said. "But at this point, I don't have any reason to think that they will go farther."

Jarvis said that any owner of a Panther vehicle can buy a shield and have it installed for $105, but he said that the shields are not necessary. Ford does not publicize the shield's general availability.

"The vehicle by itself is a safe vehicle," Jarvis said.

Perry said that the Howells are still coping with the loss of their daughters. The sisters were returning home from a rock concert in Greensboro when the wreck occurred.

"As far as the settlement goes, they feel like they're not unhappy," Perry said. "But as far as curing tragedy, nothing can ever cure the tragedy. Money can never make the hurt go away."