Ford Ignition Switch Fires

On April 25, 1996, Ford Motor Company announced it would conduct one of the largest recalls for a safety-related defect in the history of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The recall covered approximately 7,900,000 Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury vehicles in the U.S. from model year 1988 through 1993 for a defect in the ignition switch causing the cars to catch ablaze spontaneously (NHTSA recall number 96V-071). The recall occurred after years of concealment by Ford that saw parked Fords go up in flames across the country when the ignition switch developed an internal short circuit, overheated and caused the surrounding material to catch on fire. Some of the vehicles were parked in garages and burned houses when they ignited.

Ford was well aware of the ignition switch defect long before it reached the agreement with NHTSA under which it would recall the affected vehicles. In the late 1980's fleets from around the country reported ignition switch caused fires. At an October 30, 1990 meeting attended by high-level engineers, Ford decided that the ignition switch responsible for the reported fires should be redesigned to eliminate future fires. A July 17, 1991 Ford briefing paper, "Light Truck Ignition Switch Concern," cites a report by United Technologies Research Center that lists the "major cause" of the ignition switch fires as "electrical erosion due to inductive loads in circuits carried through the ignition switch." The arcing caused by actuating the switch melts a minute amount of copper from the terminal. The stray copper than embeds itself in the minlon insulator and after many cycles, causes a direct B+ to ground short. The paper notes that, as a "corrective action," the ignition switch was being redesigned in a manner that "does not permit the same type of failure mode."

On at least three separate occasions, the government opened investigations in response to frequent reports of interior electrical fires in various models and years of Ford vehicles. The two times, Ford misled the government and got off without a recall. On August 3, 1992, NHTSA opened an investigation (PE92-092) into steering column fires in "all 1989 Ford Crown Victoria vehicles and any other vehicles manufactured by Ford that used the same ignition switch." Ford immediately persuaded NHTSA to limit the investigation to "1989 Ford Crown Victoria vehicles and any other Crown Victoria vehicle manufactured by Ford that used the same ignition switch." On November 30, 1992, NHTSA closed its investigation on the grounds that "the ignition switches ... were simply worn out."

On March 1, 1994 the Center for Auto Safety (CAS) petitioned NHTSA to investigate underdash electrical fires on 1986-88 Ford F-series trucks. Although NHTSA opened an investigation (PE94-034), the agency closed it on August 31, 1994 after Ford denied that it was unaware of any "pattern to suggest a common cause." In response to whether there were any changes to the ignition switch. Ford replied it "did not identify any significant changes to relate to the alleged defect." NHTSA's closing memo for PE94-034 stated:

”[The] earlier evaluation (PE92-069) concerned steering column fires in 1989 through 1990 Crown Victoria vehicles and focused on allegations of ignition switch failures as being the causal factor. It was determined that the ignition switches were simply worn out. The brass contacts inside the switch were badly worn and internal arcing of electrical current caused the switch to overheat. The subject switch was used in the Crown Victoria model from 1983 through 1989. Although many of these vehicles have been on the road for nearly 10 years and have accumulated high mileage, only slightly over 2 per 100,000 vehicles have failed. The same identical switch was also used in 25,245,621 other Ford built vehicles from 1983 to 1992, including the 1986 through 1988 F-series trucks. The infrequent switch failures are usually preceded by erratic starting operation, warning the owner of the potential problem. It appears that the failures in PE92-069 were isolated incidents without a safety defect trend. Analysis of consumer complaints, service documents, etc. disclosed no information leading to identification of a certain circuit, wire or component as being a causal factor for under-dash fires. In very few instances was a particular item identified as being a causal factor and some of these implicated non-OEM equipment installed after vehicle purchase. Some that were claimed were: electrical problems ensued after installation of after-market truck lights, non-Ford accessory wired into fuse block, after-market radio installed, ignition switch burned due to wire short at fuel pump, wires pinched under dash, dash fire due to tail light shorted against exhaust, fuel change valve wire crushed under chassis, turn signal rubbed and grounded out, and finally after installation of a replacement engine, the ignition switch failed.”A defect trend has not been identified. Further expenditure of agency resources is not warranted.”

Just two months later on November 4, 1994, NHTSA opened a third investigation (PE94-078) into ignition switch fires, this time prompted by steering columns fires in 1990 Escorts. Once again, Ford tried to mislead NHTSA and told the agency it had no knowledge of any "causal factor or trend of alleged fires" and that its analysis of these fires "did not identify a common location or cause." This time, NHTSA did not buy off on Ford's statements and upgraded the investigation to an Engineering Analysis (EA95-002) on February 3, 1995. Just one week earlier, an internal Ford memo, "1984-1993 [Ford] passenger cares and light-trucks, except Taurus/Sable," from John Kunz to Ford Vice-President Helen O. Petrauskas on February 16, 1995 recommended Ford undertake studies to "define a defendable 'fence' around certain vehicles/model years" to limit any recall and clearly described the "casual factors" for such fires stating: “deterioration of the plastic bar (barrier) between the battery and ground terminals within the ignition switch can cause an internal short. Testing indicates that the potential for such deterioration is greatest when the air gap adjacent to the battery terminal is below specifications and excessive amounts of lubricating grease are used in the switch. In addition, other factors ... may also have an effect on switch life.”

During the upgraded investigation, Ford continued its efforts to build a "defendable fence" around the population of vehicles to be recalled and continued to misled NHTSA. For example in a September 1, 1995 submission, Ford again denied knowledge of any "design or manufacturing defect" affecting the ignition switch. This denial was made despite Ford instructing United Technologies Association (UTA) to build 4 million redesigned switches on July 19, 1995 which clearly were intended for use in recalls. In November 1995, under pressure from Transport Canada, Ford announced a 248,000 vehicle recall in that country. Yet it was not until April 1996, after mounting media attention to the flaming Fords that Ford agreed to conduct a recall of nearly 8 million vehicles.

Despite the magnitude of this safety recall, the vehicles covered comprise only about one-third of the fleet with the ignition switch defect. Ford managed to negotiate a gerrymandered recall under which Ford offered red herring distinctions between 1988 and later vehicles and pre-1988 vehicles with the exact same ignition switch. NHTSA agreed to this arrangement in the face of mounting evidence that the pre-1988 Fords actually surpassed the vehicles subject to the recall in their rate of ignition switch fires. The result is that roughly 15 million vehicles prone to ignition switch fires remain on the rod without any hint as to the latent defect.

However, Ford was not yet out of the woods. State Farm Fire and Casualty Company brought to NHTSA's attention the many documents that show Ford's prior knowledge of the defect and its concealment of the documents during the various investigations. On March 11, 1999 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) entered into a settlement with Ford Motor Company for failing to do the ignition switch earlier and for failing to provide documents covered by information requests in the defect investigation into the switch. Ford agreed to pay a $425,000 fine which is the highest fine since NHTSA imposed a $500,000 fine on Firestone for selling Firestone 500 steel belted radial tires which the company knew to be defective because they failed to comply with the high speed requirements of FMVSS 109.

Class actions were also filed against Ford but were ultimately unsuccessful. In re Ford Motor Company Ignition Switch Products Liability Litigation, No. MDL 1112, 194 F.R.D. 484 (D.N.J. 2000).