By ROBERT GOODRICH Post-Dispatch
A ruling Wednesday by a St. Clair County judge clears the way for a class action trial on behalf of all Illinois law enforcement agencies that bought Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor cars back to the 1992 model.
Some police officers say the cars' gasoline tanks tend to rupture in crashes. Ford denies the accusation.
The suit was filed in August in circuit court in Belleville by lawyers for the cities of Centreville and Cairo, Ill. The lead plaintiffs now are Centreville and St. Clair County.
Neither of those agencies has had one of its police Crown Victoria's burn or explode, but they asked in December that all Illinois police agencies that bought the Police Interceptor models be certified as a class.
Circuit Judge Lloyd A. Cueto ruled in favor of that motion Wednesday. He ordered both sides to submit proposals for a pretrial schedule by July 31.
Cueto's ruling says hundreds of Illinois law enforcement agencies own Police Interceptor models and that all face the same question of whether the vehicles have a fuel system defect.
Class action proceedings would be the most economic way to resolve the matter, Cueto ruled.
The suit asks that Ford be required to take measures to make its police cruisers safer. Plaintiffs'
lawyers say Ford already installs a bladder in the tanks of some of its high-performance Mustangs.
Nationwide, at least 14 officers have lost their lives in Crown Victoria fires since 1982. But a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report released last October says the Crown Victoria fared no worse in crashes than a competitor, the Chevrolet Caprice.
Trooper Michael Newton of the Missouri Highway Patrol died May 22 when his Police Interceptor was hit from behind near Odessa, Mo. But a Highway Patrol spokesman said none of the cars had exploded before and that the patrol would stick with that model as its primary vehicle.
General Motors has switched to making front-wheel-drive Impalas for police use. The St. Louis Police Department has shifted most of its fleet of about 320 cars to that model, but said the main factor was price.
Ford says its Crown Victoria maintains about 85 percent of the police car market. It has issued a statement saying no design can eliminate all risk and that its cars meet all federal safety standards.
Some law enforcement agencies have ordered items such as pry bars that could pierce the gas tank in a crash removed from the trunks of the Crown Victoria.
The St. Clair County Sheriff's Department installed an automatic fire suppression system in its 40-plus Crown Victorias.
The Madison County Sheriff's Department has about 40 Crown Victorias, and the model makes up the bulk of the fleet driven by troopers for the Illinois State Police.