Judge orders Ford to replace faulty ignition switches

Saturday, April 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) _ Ford Motor Co. must replace defective ignition devices on an estimated 2 million California vehicles prone to stalling, a judge ruled Friday.

The order, which would cost Ford an estimated $300 million, came months after Alameda County Superior Court Judge Michael E. Ballachey ordered the vehicles recalled as part of a statewide class-action lawsuit.

Ballachey ordered replacement of the devices after finding that Ford concealed the problem from government inspectors. Legal wrangling may delay replacements more than a year, and even with the fix, the cars still may stall in traffic.

Plaintiffs' attorneys and consumer groups said it was the best option, rejecting a proposal to re-engineer the device as time-consuming and a car buyback proposal as financially unfair to poorer owners.

``It's problematic, but there is less likelihood that they will stall with the new modules,'' said Jeff Fazio, the lead attorney against Ford.

The automaker denies the devices are defective, but has settled hundreds of wrongful death, injury and other lawsuits in connection to allegations of Ford vehicles stalling.

The Alameda County Superior Court lawsuit challenged Ford's placement of the thick film ignition (TFI) module, which regulates electric current to the spark plugs. In 300 models sold between 1983 and 1995, the module was mounted on the distributor near the engine block, where it was exposed to high temperatures.

Ballachey, the nation's only judge to order a vehicle recall, found last year that Ford was warned by an engineer that high temperatures would cause the device to fail and stall the engine.

Internal documents show that Ford confirmed the problem and could have moved the module for an extra $4 per vehicle.

Ballachey said Ford concealed the information from federal safety regulators, who were studying hundreds of complaints about Ford vehicles stalling. The government found no safety problems with the modules, but a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration official said the government would not have closed the case if Ford had given the agency key documents unveiled in the class-action case.

Ford said it would appeal the recall order, which affects all 1983-1995 Ford models in California _ an estimated 2 million cars and trucks. The automaker said judges do not have the same power as does the NHTSA to order a vehicle recall.

``We don't think there's anything that needs to be replaced. Our ignition system is as good as anybody's,'' Ford attorney Warren Platt said.

Similar ignition-device lawsuits are pending in other states and could develop into a nationwide class-action lawsuit, affecting some 20 million vehicles.