Judge Sends Cop Car Suits to State Courts
May 27, 2004
BY MARGARET CRONIN FISK
Ford Motor Co. must face state court trials in 15 class actions filed by police departments over its Crown Victoria police vehicle, a federal judge said.
Police departments in several states, including Texas, New Jersey and Louisiana, filed suits, claiming the Crown Victoria is vulnerable to fuel-fed fires in rear-end collisions. Attorneys for the police departments said that at least 18 police officers have been burned to death following such collisions.
Ford, which asked U.S. District Judge Donald C. Nugent in Cleveland to keep the lawsuits together in federal court, said the claims were prohibited by federal auto safety laws.
Nugent sent the lawsuits back to state court for trial, finding the police departments could pursue their claims against the automaker. The decision means Ford will face multiple trials in the next year over the Crown Victoria, attorney David Perry said.
"Within the next few weeks, we should start getting trial dates," said Perry, who represents several Texas police departments. "While the cases were in federal court, we couldn't proceed."
Ford spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes said the company wanted to receive accelerated trial dates in the lawsuits. "These are very strong cases for Ford and we will aggressively defend the vehicle," she said.
The police departments suing Ford in these cases haven't had any incidents involving Crown Victoria fires, Vokes said.
"Indeed, in most cases, the police presented by plaintiffs for deposition confirmed that they do not believe there is a defect in the cars and that they had no role in deciding to sue Ford," she said.
"These lawsuits are by lawyers, about lawyers and for lawyers," Vokes said.
The police departments, which began suing in April 2002, contend the Crown Victoria is unsafe for police work because the gas tank is placed behind the rear axle.
"These cars were designed for 50 miles-per-hour impacts when everybody knew that many of these cars could sustain impacts much higher than that," said Perry of Corpus Christi, Texas.
The police departments also sued local car dealers, saying they violated warranties. The suits seek damages for the cost of repairing or modifying gas tanks on all Crown Victoria police vehicles, or for replacement vehicles.
Ford said in court pleadings that the police departments had no legitimate cause of action and fraudulently named the dealers to keep the lawsuits in state court. In his May 19 decision, Nugent said the claims against the dealers were permitted under state warranty laws.