Grieving couple urge Ford to do more
By James RomoserJOURNAL REPORTER
The parents of three sisters who died in 2003 in a limousine fire said yesterday that their two-year legal battle with Ford Motor Co. illuminated a serious fuel-tank safety problem and made other limos safer.
Brenda and Ricky Howell, who reached a settlement with Ford on Tuesday in their wrongful-death lawsuit, also called on the company to improve fuel-tank safety in thousands of other vehicles similar to the Lincoln Town Car limo in which their daughters were killed. "We have peace in our hearts that we've done all that we can do," Brenda Howell said in an interview.
Neither side would discuss the terms of the settlement, citing a confidentiality agreement. Jury selection for the trial had been set to begin Monday in Davie Superior Court.
The settlement, the Howells said, closes one chapter in a tragedy that began on Sept. 10, 2003, when their daughters - Tara Howell Parker, 29; Mysti Howell-Poplin, 24; and Megan Elizabeth Howell, 16 - rented a limousine to attend a Fleetwood Mac concert in Greensboro.
On their way home, a drunken driver in a pickup slammed into the back of the limo, which was stuck in traffic on Interstate 40. The collision punctured the limo's fuel tank, and the limo caught fire.
The Howell family sued Ford, claiming that the sisters would have survived if the limo's fuel tank had been equipped with a protective safety shield.
"I'm not going to say I'm angry at all the people there, but at some of the people that made the decisions that could have prevented this," Ricky Howell said. "Had the shield been in place on our girls' car, they'd be here today."
A year before the wreck that killed the Howell sisters, Ford began installing the safety shields in its Crown Victoria police cruisers, the most widely used police cars in the country. Crown Victorias, like Lincoln Town Cars, are part of an old line of vehicles known as the "Panther" platform. These vehicles have fuel tanks behind the rear axle, where they can be more easily ruptured in high-speed rear-end crashes.
For three years, Ford maintained that the police cars were the only Panther models that needed the safety shields. But in October, it reversed course and began offering the shield as an optional upgrade to owners of Town Car limos.
The Howells and their attorneys say they believe that the step was a direct result of their lawsuit. A spokeswoman for Ford denied on Wednesday that the two things were related.
"It's a shame that someone would use a tragedy and spread inaccurate information," said the spokeswoman, Kathleen Vokes. She said that Ford's limos have a rate of crash fires comparable to similar makes and models. She also said that the company should not be blamed for the actions of a drunken driver who caused a violent crash.
The family named the driver, Jeffrey McFayden, as a co-defendant in the lawsuit. That claim was also settled out of court Tuesday. McFayden is serving a five- to six-year prison term for involuntary man-slaughter.
The Howells said that their main goal was to get Ford to correct what the Howells believe is a serious problem in the fuel-tank design of Panther cars. "Putting the shields on the limousines is a step in the right direction," Ricky Howell said at a tearful news conference yesterday.
He also said that it is not enough. Ford is not actively installing the shields in its other Panther cars - namely its Mercury Grand Marquis and Town Car sedans. There are also questions about how many limo dealers are even aware that the shield is available as an optional upgrade for Town Car limos.
Attorneys said that there are about 5 million Ford vehicles with unprotected rear fuel tanks on the road today.
David Perry, the Howells' lead attorney who has been involved in several other lawsuits against Ford over the fuel-tank issue, said that change will come only with public awareness of the issue.