Ford Settles with Families of Officers Burned to Death

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Cruiser gas tanks caught fire after high-speed crash


By Carol Sowers
The Arizona Republic
May. 22, 2002

Ford Motor Co. has settled lawsuits filed by families of two Arizona law-enforcement officers who were burned alive after their Crown Victoria police cruisers burst into flames when they were struck from behind.


The undisclosed settlements were reached last week by the families of Arizona Department of Public Safety Officers Floyd "Skip" Fink, who died Feb. 18, 2000, and Juan Cruz, who died Dec. 9, 1998.


The settlements came as Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano is preparing for a June 2 meeting with Ford to discuss the safety of the Crown Victoria’s fuel-tank design, blamed in the lawsuits for causing cars to burst into flames when they are struck from behind at high speeds.


Two other lawsuits involving one death and a serious injury also were settled in Massachusetts and Florida. Two others are pending in Louisiana and another in Florida.


Phoenix attorney Pat McGroder, who represented all four families, confirmed the settlements, but said terms of the deal prohibit him or the families from commenting. McGroder also represents Phoenix Police Officer Jason Schecterle, whose cruiser burst into flames March 26, 2001, after he was rammed by a Phoenix taxicab driver.


McGroder said Schecterle also plans to sue Ford. The taxicab driver, Rogelio Gutierrez, was sentenced recently to 12 years in prison.


Tom Prose, an assistant state attorney general, said Tuesday that he is encouraged by the settlement, because it means Ford is "concerned about the future."


Napolitano and the families of the officers say the behind-the-axle design of the gas tanks makes them vulnerable in rear-end collisions. When the cars are struck, the tank wraps around the axle, where it is punctured by sharp bolts, causing them to engulf the cars in flames.


In a scathing letter to Ford in March, Napolitano said the state bought Crown Victorias for its DPS officers because it believed the popular police cruiser was crashworthy. But she said Ford’s failure to crash test the vehicles at highway speeds above 50 mph and to change the fuel-tank design "is highly disturbing."


Cruz and Fink’s cars were hit at 66 and 70 mph, respectively.


Kathleen Vokes, a Ford spokeswoman, said the company disagrees with "a lot of the points" in Napolitano’s letter, and said the Crown Victoria, used by police agencies throughout the country, meets or exceeds federal safety standards. She also said that the settlements do not mean that Ford accepts blame.


Still, the company recommended in October that a hex-head bolt attached to the rear axle be replaced with a round-headed fastener for 1992 to 1997 vehicles and to grind down a tab on the car’s undercarriage for 1992 to 2001. The recommendations were made to reduce what Ford called the "unlikely possibility of a fuel-tank puncture during an extremely high-speed rear impact," Ford said.


Those repairs have been made by many Valley law-enforcement agencies.


But Prose said the tank needs to be replaced or fitted with a bladder to reduce impact.


Jake Jacobsen, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, said the gas tank of one Phoenix cruiser has been lined with ballistics nylon and cushioned with foam to absorb a collision. The modification has not harmed performance, but he said he’s not sure if it will be crash-tested to determine if the new tank is safer.