Texan's Death Rekindles Ford Switch Issue
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Family of retiree files suit blaming component linked with engine fires.
Ford expands recall.
David Shepardson / Detroit News Washington Bureau
March 6, 2007
WASHINGTON — Al Gavegan Sr.’s death in a house fire last summer left family
and friends in San Antonio searching for answers — and they say the
evidence leads straight to Ford Motor Co. and a faulty electrical switch.
The retired government contractor was well-known as the guy who operated the
time clock at high school football games and taught kids with special needs.
On birthdays, he asked friends to forgo gifts in favor of teddy bears he
could donate to sick children at a local hospital.
Hundreds attended his funeral after the 76-year-old died Aug. 14 in a blaze
that started when a late-night fire spread from his 1994 Mercury Marquis
parked in his attached garage, investigators found. A police report listed
the fire’s probable cause as "an electrical malfunction in the engine
compartment of the vehicle."
Gavegan’s family soon discovered that his Grand Marquis was one of 16
million Ford vehicles built with an electrical switch that has been linked
to nearly 550 fires and about 1,500 complaints.
Since 1999, Ford has recalled 6.85 million vehicles with the switches,
making it one of the largest auto safety recalls in U.S. history. On Monday,
Ford again expanded the recall of vehicles with the speed control switches
in question. The latest recall included 155,000 2003 model SUVs and pickup
trucks. But millions of vehicles with the switch, including Gavegan’s Grand
Marquis, have not been recalled.
Ford spokeswoman Kristen Kinley said the company has been vigilant in
recalling vehicles. "We’re continually looking at our products in light of
how difficult this particular recall has been." Despite five recalls and an
exhaustive federal safety investigation, Ford has been unable to put an end
to switch issue. Ford faces more than 20 lawsuits around the country —
including a wrongful death lawsuit to be filed today by the Gavegan family
in Bexar County Court in Texas. Kinley says it is investigating the cause of
the Gavegan fire and hasn’t reached any conclusions.
Ford said its decision not to recall all 16 million vehicles with the
switches is based on a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
investigation and its own research that show only certain vehicles with the
switches are at risk of catching fire. Ford, which initially denied that the
switches were defective, says an "interaction" between faulty switches and
their placement in certain vehicles is to blame, not the switches alone.
NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said Ford has expanded the recall "whenever it has
become clear" it was necessary. "This is a problem that seems to be
dependent on the age of the vehicle. It’s possible that higher-than-normal
failure rates didn’t show up right away," Tyson said.
The switch is used to deactivate a vehicle’s cruise control when a driver
taps a brake pedal. Most of the suits allege fires began well after the
vehicles were turned off. Ford stopped using the $21 Texas Instruments
switch in 2002 after a decade of use. In 1999, the company recalled the 1992
and 1993 Mercury Grand Marquis models to replace the switch, but not the
1994 model that Gavegan drove. Ford says a specific batch of switches were
Mark Chalos, a Nashville lawyer representing the Gavegan family, contends
there was no significant engineering difference between the 1993 and 1994
Grand Marquis. "These companies have known for years about the fire dangers
of these switches. They have chosen not to recall affected vehicles," Chalos
said Monday. The Gavegans’ suit also names Texas Instruments Inc. The
company sold the division that made the switches in 2006 to Sensata
Of the 6.85 million vehicles recalled, Ford has fixed 45 percent. That’s a
better-than-average rate for auto safety recalls, since many owners ignore
letters. A key reason the switches are a fire hazard is that they have
electricity running through them after vehicles are shut off. The fix
dealers install is a fused wiring harness to prevent a fire from starting.
How switch fault began
In the late 1980s, Ford asked Texas Instruments to build a fourth-generation
version of a speed control switch first introduced in the 1960s. By spring
1992, Ford asked Texas Instruments to develop a quieter switch. In May 1999,
following complaints, Ford recalled 279,000 1992 and 1993 model Mercury
Grand Marquis sedans — among other vehicles that had the switch.
In 2000, NHTSA began a new probe of the fires from additional vehicles. In
September 2002, it upgraded its investigation to an engineering analysis
that lasted 22 months. At the time, NHTSA declined to take any action
because of the low incidence of fires. In November 2004, NHTSA opened
another investigation into the switches after getting 36 complaints of
engine fires in Ford trucks and SUVs. Two months later, Ford recalled
740,000 F-150s, Ford Expeditions and Lincoln Navigators.
Ford has argued there was no conclusive evidence the systems were
malfunctioning and sparking fires until September 2005, when it recalled 3.8
million pickups and SUVs from the 1994 to 2002 model years, including the
Ford F-150. At the time, Ford told owners to immediately have their cruise
control switches deactivated, even though they didn’t have all of the
In August 2006, Ford recalled another 1.2 million vehicles as NHTSA closed
one of the most exhaustive defect investigations in the agency’s history.
NHTSA’s 29-page report said fatigue failure of a brake seal allows fluid to
corrode the cruise control switch when it’s pointed up and catch fire. Ford
recently settled a widely publicized lawsuit connected to a suspected switch
fire. Darletta Mohlis of Westgate, Iowa, was killed in a May 2005 fire that
the family claims started in her 1996 Ford F-150 and spread to the house.
Ford denies wrongdoing, but settled the lawsuit last October. The terms are
Fire kills beloved volunteer
Al Gavegan used to fall asleep watching The Tonight Show and family members
believe that’s likely what happened Aug. 14 when the fire broke out just
before 11 p.m. After the fire started, neighbors pounded on the windows,
trying to wake Gavegan.
Gavegan was an Air Force veteran who tested nuclear weapons systems as a
government contractor. He was an usher at St. Mary Margaret’s Catholic
Church, who stuffed collection envelopes and delivered Meals on Wheels.
After his four children grew up, "he kind of took of the school children in
the district as his kids," says his daughter, Judy Freeman, a retired school
teacher in Ohio.
He was a baseball umpire and refereed football games before moving to the
press box in the late 1970s to be a timekeeper at Alamo Field. Three nights
a week in the fall, he ran the 30-second play clock for the San Antonio
school district. This fall, in honor of Gavegan, the district silently
counted down the 30-second clock before the season’s first three games. "I
pick up the phone and find myself dialing his number," said his daughter,
Janice Scott, of San Jose, Calif. "Nobody should have to suffer and go
through the shock and disbelief like this."
* May 1999: 1992-93 Ford Crown Victoria, 1992-93 Lincoln Town Car,
1992-93 Mercury Grand Marquis
* January 2005: 2000 F-150, 2000 Ford Expedition,
2000 Lincoln Navigator,
2001 Ford F-Series Super Cab truck
* September 2005: 1994-99 and 2001-02 Ford F-150 and F-150 FD, 1997-99 and
2001-2002 Ford Expedition; 2002 Lincoln Blackwood, 1994-96 Ford Bronco
* August 2006: 1996-2002 Ford E-450, 1994-96 Ford Econoline, 2000-02 Ford
Excursion, 1998 Ford Explorer, 1994-2002 F-250, 1994-2002 Ford F-550, 1998
* March 2007: 2003 F-150, 2003 F250-550, 2003 Ford Excursion, 2003 Lincoln
Blackwood For more information, call 888-327-4236, or go to nhtsa.gov.
Source: Ford Motor Co.