Environmental group questions safety of Ford SUV

Tuesday, March 11th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ An environmental group on Monday said a review of Ford Motor Co.'s safety record shows it can't be trusted when it claims that improving fuel-efficiency standards could compromise the safety of its sport utility vehicles.

The Washington-based Environmental Working Group released a variety of public documents from lawsuits over the years that alleged Ford paid an engineer $5 million to lie about the Bronco II's rollover record.

Ford said the allegations were outrageous. Ford spokesman Jon Harmon said four courts in Oklahoma and Texas have dismissed the accusations about the engineer in the last three years.

``Our vehicles have an exemplary safety record spanning many years and many billions of miles of real-world driving,'' Ford said in a statement.

The Environmental Working Group reviewed documents from cases in which Ford was sued after Bronco II drivers and passengers were injured or killed.

The report claims Ford paid former engineer David Bickerstaff to testify that the Bronco II was stable. Before those payments began, the environmental group says, Bickerstaff testified he was concerned about the Bronco II's rollover propensity.

Ford has faced the allegations about Bickerstaff before. In 2001, the South Carolina Court of Appeals said victims of a rollover crash could pursue claims against Ford because of their questions about Bickerstaff's testimony. The South Carolina Supreme Court is deciding whether to hear that case.

Also in 2001, Ford reached a confidential settlement with a West Virginia woman after a U.S. District Court judge said there was evidence of an alleged conspiracy between Ford and Bickerstaff.

Harmon said the claims against Bickerstaff are false.

Ford stopped production of the Bronco II in 1990 and replaced it with the Explorer. The Environmental Working Group said the Explorer was essentially the same vehicle as the Bronco II, but Harmon said the Explorer was completely new.

Harmon wouldn't say how much Ford has paid in damages over the Bronco II. In 2001, juries in Texas, Ohio and Indiana ordered Ford to pay damages totaling $107 million. The Indiana award was later reduced from $62.4 million to $13 million.

Ford, General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler AG all said last month they oppose a government proposal to increase fuel-efficiency of SUVs. The automakers say safety could be compromised if the new standard goes into effect too quickly.