The judge's preliminary decision came Tuesday in a lawsuit filed on behalf of 3.5 million current and former California owners of Ford vehicles in model years 1983-95. The lawsuit contends the vehicles stall because an ignition device was mounted in the wrong place.
Ford is already involved in this month's recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires, which were standard equipment on some Ford trucks and sport utility vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating 62 deaths possibly linked to the tires.
Ford denies any ignition defects. Company spokeswoman Susan Krusel said Ford would ask Alameda County Superior Court Judge Michael Ballachey to reverse his preliminary decision at a Sept. 28 hearing. If the judge were to make the order final, Ford is confident it would be overturned on appeal, Krusel said.
Consumer advocates estimated that a recall would cost Ford $70 million to $250 million, The New York Times reported Wednesday.
"I think it's a huge victory. The judge studied this information for five years now," plaintiffs' attorney Jeffrey Fazio said Wednesday. "In every single case, Ford had a massive amount of information about the ... problem."
The suit challenges Ford's placement of the thick film ignition, or 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.
Plaintiffs' lawyers have said Ford was warned by an engineer that high temperatures would cause the device to fail and stall the engine, confirmed the problem in internal studies, and could have moved the module to a cooler spot for an extra $4 per vehicle.
The judge's preliminary order harshly criticized how Ford dealt with the federal safety agency. It agreed with the plaintiffs that the company withheld information, the Times reported.
"Ford's strategy, clearly established by the credible evidence, was: 'If you don't ask the right question, we don't have to answer with what common sense tells us you want to know,"' Ballachey wrote.
After complaints from customers and dealers about stalling, Ford recalled 1.1 million 1984-85 vehicles in 1987 to repair their ignition devices. Federal safety officials investigated in 1984, 1985 and 1987 and found no safety defects.
Ford denied it concealed critical information from the agency. It said its vehicles were no more prone to stalling than any others and posed no hazard.
"We're very concerned for our customers because modifying the ignition switches in the way the court suggests would do more harm than good," Krusel said. "The modules have lasted over 100,000 miles on average ... and in 18 years have never caused an accident."
A jury trial of the same lawsuit ended in a mistrial in 1999.