A Safety Matter [Lincoln Town Car Fuel Tank]

Family of sisters who died in a fiery wreck is suing Ford Motor Co., saying it should have installed a shield soonerBy James RomoserWinston-Salem JournalSunday, October 16, 2005
Sisters Megan Howell (from left), Tara Howell Parker and Mysti Howell-Poplin died in 2003 when their rented limo was hit in the rear and burned.
Sisters Megan Howell (from left), Tara Howell Parker and Mysti Howell-Poplin died in 2003 when their rented limo was hit in the rear and burned. (Photo Courtesy of the Howell Family)  

Last month, Ford Motor Co. did something that it could have done at least three years ago. It began distributing a basic safety shield that reduces the risk of fire when a Lincoln Town Car limousine is hit from behind.

That shield might have saved the lives of three Mocksville sisters who burned to death on Sept. 10, 2003, on their way home from a rock concert.

Ford had begun installing the plastic shields in its Crown Victoria police cruisers the year before the sisters died. But until this September, the company had maintained that the shields were not needed in its limos and other mechanically-similar cars.

Ford's decision to reverse course comes as it prepares for a wrongful-death lawsuit filed in Davie County by the women's family.

Tara Howell Parker, 29, Mysti Howell-Poplin, 24, and Megan Elizabeth Howell, 16, died in a wreck after a Fleetwood Mac concert in Greensboro.

The Town Car limo they had rented for the night got stuck in traffic on Interstate 40, and a drunken driver in a pickup barreled into the limo at 60 mph.

The impact crushed the back of the limo. Pieces of the rear axle punctured the fuel tank. The fuel leaked, then burned. The limo ignited, and the doors jammed. The sisters were trapped inside.

The Center for Auto Safety, a consumer-advocacy group in Washington, says that at least 48 other people nationwide have died because of collision fires in the same line of Ford vehicles. It maintains that the design of the vehicle - with the fuel tank so close to the axle - is to blame, and has asked Ford to recall all 4 million cars with the fuel-tank design.

David Perry, an attorney from Corpus Christi, Texas, who has been involved in eight other lawsuits against Ford over the design issue, is representing the Howells. He said that their case, which is scheduled for trial on Jan. 16, will hinge on the fact that Ford fixed the fuel-safety problem in its police cars but failed to do the same in civilian cars.

The family "wants Ford to fix these cars so that this will stop happening," he said. "They would like for Ford to acknowledge the value of their children who were killed."

Brenda Howell, the mother of Mysti and Megan and the stepmother of Tara, said that her daughters shouldn't have died that night. "The girls didn't have to suffer," she said. "They didn't have to die like that, and I have to live with that thought every day of my life."

Puncture-prone tank

All the cars in Ford's popular Panther line have been challenged because of the unusual placement of their fuel tanks.

The Panther cars, which were introduced in 1978, have traditionally been large, sedan-style cars with rear-wheel drive. Today, they include the Crown Victoria, the Mercury Grand Marquis and two versions of the Town Car - a sedan and a stretch limousine.

All the Panther cars share the same platform, meaning that they contain the same structural components and have nearly identical mechanics.

In particular, the fuel tank in every Panther car is in the back of the vehicle, in an area - the "crush zone" - that absorbs most of the impact.

"The three most important things about fuel-tank safety are the same as the three most important things in real estate - location, location, location," said Clarence Ditlow, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.

In most modern vehicles, it is standard to put the fuel tank toward the center of the car, where it is most protected. In the Panther cars, the suitcase-shaped fuel tank is lodged between the rear axle and the trunk, where it can be easily damaged.

In high-speed rear collisions involving Panther cars, the trunk compresses and the fuel tank can get thrust forward into the rear axle - a thicket of pointed bolts and sharp equipment that can puncture the tank. Once fuel begins to leak, the car can burst into flames.

According to Ford, putting the fuel tank behind the rear axle does not necessarily increase the risk of fires, as long as the fuel system is well-designed. In 2002, federal regulators investigating the Panther vehicles found insufficient evidence to conclude that the cars contained a "safety-related defect."

"The instances of fires in the Ford Panther platform were comparable to other full-sized vehicles," said Doug Lampe, an in-house attorney for Ford.

Fuel-tank leaks and fires, he added, are a danger in any high-speed wreck, no matter what car is involved.

Spotty solution

Despite Lampe's assurances, Ford was forced to look at fuel-tank safety in Panther cars three years ago, after a string of high-profile incidents involving police officers who burned to death after their Crown Victoria police cars were hit from behind. The Crown Victoria is by far the most popular police cruiser in the country.

Ford began equipping the Crown Victorias with shields that fit over the rear axle and cover all of the sharp, protruding pieces, making it harder for them to puncture the fuel tank. A kit to install the shield costs about $100.

Ford has never directly acknowledged a safety problem in the Crown Victoria police car, or in any other Panther vehicle.

"Ford did not determine that those vehicles were defective" when it began installing the shields, Lampe said. "We were making a safe vehicle safer."

In addition, Ford says that it provided the shields solely to police cars - and not to any civilian Panther models - because police cars are more likely to be hit from behind at high speeds.

"The police use their car very differently than nonpolice," Lampe said. "You and I may stop on the side of a freeway once in 10 years, and we're not too thrilled to be doing it. The police may stop on the side of the freeway 25 times a day."

Last month, Ford sent a letter to registered owners of Town Car stretch limos announcing that it will start providing free shield kits for those cars.

"Due to the increased weight and stiffness of the Town Car stretch limousine, there is an increased chance the fuel tank may be punctured in a high speed/high energy rear collision," the letter reads.

Ditlow called the measure "the first break in Ford's armor" and said it was a strategic move to improve Ford's image before the Howell lawsuit goes to trial.

"There's no doubt that Ford's action is directly related to the jury trial coming up in North Carolina," he said.

Although limo owners can get the kit for free, owners of the other civilian cars, which could use exactly the same shield, are not eligible for the deal. And even some local limo dealers remained unfamiliar with the shield last week.

Jeff Clark of Imperial Limousines in Winston-Salem said he would be interested in a shield that protects the fuel tank, but he had never heard of such a shield until a reporter described it to him. He said he does not recall getting a letter from Ford.

Rick Myers of Triad Limousine said he did receive the letter and is considering installing the shield. But he was surprised that it was not being offered to Town Car sedans.

"The car is a Lincoln no matter what, so I would think that same fuel kit would be needed on all Lincolns. Maybe they just sent them out to limos. And if they did, I'm sure it's because of the problems they had recently," Myers said, referring to the Howell deaths. "But if that particular kit is needed on limos, it's needed on all Lincolns."

Reliving the wreck

The night that the Howell sisters died was supposed to be a special one.

Tara had survived heart-transplant surgery in 2002. She and her husband, the crew chief for NASCAR driver Dale Jarrett, had just adopted a baby boy named Jagger.

Mysti was also a new mother - her daughter, Mallie, was 8 months old.

And Megan, an honor student at Davie High School who hoped to become a doctor, was getting ready to apply to college.

"It just seemed like it was going to be a perfect night for the girls," Brenda Howell said. "It was probably the happiest time in all three of the girls' lives."

They had tickets to see Fleetwood Mac. And, of course, they had the rented limo. That had been Tara's idea - a glamorous surprise for her sisters on their girls' night out.

At the time, their parents thought that the limo would keep their daughters safe. Two years later, they wish that they had been right. "I try not to get angry or bitter," said Ricky Howell, the father of Tara and Megan and the stepfather of Mysti. "But I just know that it could have been prevented."

That issue is expected to be at the heart of the trial in Mocksville. Ford has already lost one high-profile lawsuit on the basis that it should have made its safety shields available to all consumers. In April, a jury in Illinois awarded a family $43.7 million in damages after a man was killed in his Town Car sedan. Ford has appealed.

"I think the evidence is going to be overwhelming that if the shields had been on the Howell vehicle, they would have prevented the fire," Perry said.

In fact, he said, attorneys have determined exactly what caused the fire that killed the sisters - down to the nuts and bolts. The three punctures in the limo's fuel tank were caused by three sharp objects attached to the axle: a device called a spring seat, a bolt head on the car's differential, and a rough crimp on the differential's cover plate.

Brenda and Ricky Howell have spent two years reconstructing the wreck in a very different way.

They constantly replay the memories from the night of Sept. 10, 2003 - hugging their daughters before they climbed into the limo, talking to them on the phone while they were at the concert, and then, finally, the late-night phone call telling them of the accident.

"The only thing that really saves me every day is that I got to tell them 'bye and I got to kiss them and hug them as they got in the limousine," Ricky Howell said. "I could see their smiling faces, and that just sticks in my mind. I thought they'd be home in a couple hours. It's just going to take me a little longer to see them again."