Iowa farmer: Ford ignited deadly blaze; company denies blame
WESTGATE, Iowa (CNN) — Earl Mohlis says he has no doubt the fire that burned down his house last month, killing his wife of 34 years, started under the hood of his 1996 Ford F-150 pickup truck — and he is suing the company, he says, to prevent more deaths.
Ford Motor Company has concluded the truck did not cause the fire.
Mohlis and his wife’s three children have brought a wrongful death lawsuit against Ford, which manufactured a cruise-control deactivation switch that the lawsuit states was defective and caused the fire.
Mohlis said his 74-year-old wife, Darletta "Dolly" Mohlis, who suffered from debilitating arthritis, woke him up early that morning, saying there was smoke in the basement. Mohlis said he went to the garage and saw flames underneath the hood of the 1996 truck.
"I could see right down there it was red right underneath the front end of that pickup and I raised up the garage door and sure enough the left front end of that pickup, she was a burning away," he said.
Mohlis ran to get his tractor in an effort to pull the truck away from the house. The tractor would not start and the fire quickly spread to the house.
Dolly called 911.
"My garage is on fire!" she screamed.
"Your garage is on fire?" the 911 dispatcher responded.
"I’ve got to get out of this house."
Moments later, she says, "The car is on fire!"
Earl Mohlis said the fire was burning fast with the wind "blowing 50 miles an hour from the northwest."
"I says to Dolly: ‘You got to get out of that house.’ She come a running and she never made it."
Officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Ford have examined what’s left of the Mohlis home alongside two experts hired by Mohlis’ lawyers a few weeks ago.
NHTSA had no comment on its findings when contacted by CNN.
The experts — Judd Clayton, an electrical engineer, and Keith Fowler, a certified fire investigator from Canada — say they believe the switch caused the fire, and are conducting tests on parts of it.
Ford issued a statement denying its vehicle caused the fire.
"An inspection of the fire scene demonstrates conclusively that the fire did not originate from the 1996 Ford F-150, and specifically not from its speed control deactivation switch," the statement said.
"Remnants of the switch were found at the scene and reviewed by Ford investigators during their inspection. These remnants rule out the switch as the cause of the fire. Instead, the evidence suggests that the fire started elsewhere in the garage, spreading to the F-150 and the Mohlis home."
The switch, which costs about $20, shuts off the cruise control when the driver firmly steps on the brakes. The switch is located under the hood of the vehicle and is attached to the brake master cylinder on one end and wired to the cruise control on the other.
On most of its models, Ford designed the switch to be powered — or "hot" — at all times, even when the vehicle is off and the key is removed from the ignition.
Inside the switch, a thin film barrier separates brake fluid from the switch’s electrical components. Investigators say fires can occur when the film cracks and brake fluid from the master cylinder seeps into the electrical side of the switch.
The Mohlis family is also suing Texas Instruments, the company that assembled the switch, and Dupont, the company that supplied the thin film.
Texas Instruments said the switch is "reliable" and insists it followed Ford’s instructions and is not responsible for overseeing how Ford uses their products.
Dupont said it only supplied raw material to Texas Instruments and was not involved in the design or use of the switch.
Ford has already recalled more than 1 million vehicles in two separate recalls to replace the switch.
But a Ford document obtained by CNN shows the same or similar switch was installed in a total of 16 million vehicles — including the Ford F Series from 1993 through 2003 — far beyond what was recalled.
In March, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an expanded investigation into more than 3.7 million of the vehicles.
NHTSA says it has now received 660 complaints of spontaneous fires, many of them in unrecalled models, and its latest investigation does include the 1996 Ford F-150.
NHTSA also has set up a hotline for the public to report fires: 1-888-327-4236.
Ford says it has initiated its own investigation and is cooperating with the NHTSA probe.
"We have identified specific populations of vehicles in which the speed-control deactivation switches have had increasing rates of failures and fires," said Ford spokeswoman Kristen Kinley in a written response to questions submitted by CNN.
"When we have seen the fire reports increasing, we have recalled those vehicles and replaced those switches. Ford has used the basic switch design in a large number of vehicles and the risk of fire related to the switch is much different in those certain populations that we have recalled."
She added, "It is important to understand that all speed control systems are not identical in Ford vehicles. … In those populations with an increasing fire report rate, we stopped using the switch through the recall process. … The switch has performed well in many models for many years."
In another statement to CNN, Kinley said, "We have been asked why we have not expanded the recall. The last thing we want to do is make an important safety decision on incorrect or incomplete information."
Kinley also said, "We have not determined at this time that there is a defect with the switch, but for reasons we still do not understand the switch is failing … and we are trying to understand why."
But, in a recall notice to owners of model year 2000 F-150s, Expeditions, Navigators and year 2001 F-150 SuperCrews, the company seemed less equivocal about the switch.
The "switch may overheat, smoke or burn which could result in an underhood fire," it said. "This condition may occur either when the vehicle is parked or when it is being operated, even if the speed control is not in use."
The company stopped using the switch altogether as of the 2004 model year, and is now using a new design.
Meanwhile, 76-year-old Earl Mohlis is now living in a mobile home on his farm, overlooking what used to be the house he built with his own hands in 1965. He said the truck had been parked in the garage for four days before the fire.
"I don’t care what make it is or model," he said. "When you shut that switch off, that truck should be dead, shouldn’t it?"
CNN’s Drew Griffin and Pia Malbran contributed to this report.