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Ford Dismissed Call To Fix Latch

May 2, 2004 | Detroit News Ford Motor Co. overruled its own safety engineers’ recommendation to recall up to 4.1 million pickups and sport utility vehicles that were found to have substandard door latches, according to internal company documents that have surfaced in recent court cases.

A Ford safety engineering team determined in March 2000 that door latches on certain 1997-2000 model light trucks including popular F-150, F-250, Expedition and Lincoln Navigator models didn’t meet federal safety standards, the documents show.

Ford ordered immediate design changes for future vehicles. But the automaker decided against a recall which could have cost up to $527 million after the company determined the latches could pass a rarely used alternative compliance test.

The decision could haunt Ford, which now faces a slew of product liability lawsuits stemming from fatal accidents where vehicle doors flew open and plaintiffs’ lawyers are blaming latch failure.

Federal safety officials, meanwhile, are reviewing allegations that Ford skirted federal laws by failing to recall the 4.1 million vehicles and alert the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the latch issue.

Ford maintains the door latches are safe and in compliance with federal laws.

“Ford’s extensive crash testing of the F-Series truck demonstrates that the doors remain closed during a variety of crashes,” said Ford spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes.

“Compliance to (federal safety standards), crash testing, and real-world data from years of on-road experience show the vehicles, including the door latches, to be safe.”

Lawyers suing Ford say the company’s internal documents paint a detailed picture of an automaker failing to address a safety issue because of financial concerns.

“It’s clear to me that Ford realized the product was dangerous and should be recalled,” said Jeff Wigington, a lawyer representing victims in door-latch lawsuits.

The internal documents, produced by Ford under court order, have emerged in court cases involving deaths and injuries in crashes when vehicle doors have flown open.

The memos and documents provide a rare glimpse into the decision-making process of an automaker confronted by a safety concern. They show the problem had been investigated by a team of engineers who discovered a manufacturing error by a parts supplier and recommended a recall to replace the handles on vehicles already on the road.

The paper trail

Parts supplier Donnelly Corp. used the wrong specifications as it made a batch of 6 million door handles, Ford concluded. As a result, the latches could come open at crash forces well below those required in federal safety tests.

A March 6, 2000, memo by Ford engineer Bharat Malhotra summarized the investigation into the door handles, the mistake by Donnelly and a possible fix.

“It is recommended that a campaign be issued to fix the painted handle vehicles manufactured during 1996-2000 (MY 97-00),” Malhotra wrote.

Every car and truck sold in the United States must pass the door-latch test, known as Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 206. The test requires door handles to be engineered to withstand a force of 30 G’s, or 30 times as strong as the Earth’s gravity.

NHTSA uses a procedure sanctioned by the Society of Automotive Engineers, known as Recommended Practice J839b, to ensure compliance to standard 206.

Manufacturers must certify that door handles comply before vehicles can be sold.

If an automaker discovers that a vehicle is out of compliance with the safety standard, the manufacturer must recall it and provide a fix at no charge to owners, according to the federal Motor Vehicle Safety Act.

Recall still planned

The issue passed from Ford’s Critical Concerns Review Group to its Technical Review Committee and finally to the Field Review Committee, the company’s executive body that has the authority to make a final decision to recall.

As of March 27, 2000, a recall was still being planned to increase the torque in the springs of the door handles by 130 percent, the internal documents show.

Less than a week later, on March 30, 2000, a memo from Ford recall coordinator Kelly Zubieta indicated the recall, which had already been assigned a formal company tracking number “Safety Recall 00S08” was not warranted.


The recall was canceled after a Ford engineer, James Salmon, determined the latches could pass an alternate compliance test, according to testimony in an April 2004 door-latch trial.

The other test known as a crash pulse was first approved in 1967, according to a letter to General Motors Corp. from Dr. William Haddon, chief of the National Highway Safety Bureau, NHTSA’s predecessor.

The alternate test requires door latches to stand up to a brief impulse rather than continuous force.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys argue that the 1967 GM pulse test is not sanctioned by NHTSA. They cite a 1975 letter from NHTSA to Mercedes-Benz that indicates the agency will accept only the continuous force 30-G test to verify compliance.

“Any government inertia load compliance testing will be done in accordance with paragraph 5 of SAE Recommended Practice J839b,” NHTSA wrote.

Latch safety disputed

Even if the door handles met the federal requirement, research published by Salmon suggests they would not be safe in a real-world crash. In a 1997 paper published by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Salmon estimated real-world crashes can generate forces on door handles as high as 180 G’s, six times the force required to meet the federal safety standard.

Company documents indicate the door latch in question was redesigned in 2000 to withstand a force of 400 G’s. The new latches were immediately shipped to assembly lines and were distributed to dealers as replacement parts. But owners of the 1997-2000 trucks were not notified of questions arising about the door latches.

Ford says the original latches are safe, and the redesigned latches are simply an example of continuous improvement.

“The documentation shows that when Ford became aware of a potential problem with the spring torque configuration for the outside handles on certain F-150 trucks, it promptly investigated the issue, interviewed the suppliers, reconfirmed the inventory, took appropriate steps to ensure compliance, and retested the handles and springs,” said Vokes, the Ford spokeswoman.

“All of this extensive work reconfirmed that Ford was correct in concluding that this latch complies with all applicable federal standards and is safe and appropriate for use.”

Legal troubles mount

Even so, lawsuits alleging safety problems with the latch are mounting.

On April 21, the automaker reached a confidential cash settlement with the families of two sisters killed in a Feb. 15, 2002, rollover crash involving a 1999 F-150. The settlement came just before closing arguments in a four-week trial in Zapata, Texas.

At least 15 other suits are pending or have been settled involving injuries or deaths from crashes in which Ford truck doors have come open. The cases include:

A class action suit involving owners of 1997 through 2001 Ford F-150, F-250, Expedition, and Lincoln Navigator and Blackwood trucks. A separate complaint against Ford seeking class-action status was filed March 5 in U.S. District Court in Texarkana, Texas.

No indication of failures

During testimony in the Garcia case, retired Ford executive Lou Camp, former director of the company’s Auto Safety Office, said there was no accident data that indicated latches were failing during real-world crashes.

“I have no credible reason to believe anything I’ve heard in this trial or anything else that says there’s an actual occurrence of inertial opening of a door that caused anyone to be killed,” Camp said.

“If I knew that, we would have done something. I have yet to see any instance that leads me to believe that we would have prevented any deaths had we changed these handles.”

Andrew Gilberg, a former Ford engineer, has testified as a door-latch expert in the lawsuits. Now general manager of Teknacon, an engineering consulting firm in Kennesaw, Ga., Gilberg said he knew of no other auto company that has used the crash pulse test Ford used to verify compliance with federal latch safety standards.

“Ford realized it was about to spend a half-billion dollars on a recall, and it was looking for any reason not to do so,” Gilberg said. “They figured it was time to look for an alternative means of compliance.”

Gilberg wrote to NHTSA on March 24, citing the court documents and arguing the door latches are defective. NHTSA has not responded to the letter, Gilberg said.

NHTSA spokesman Tim Hurd said the letter was being examined by Kenneth Weinstein, head of the agency’s vehicle compliance and defects investigation offices.

“Our enforcement people encourage people to provide us whatever they know about potential defects,” Hurd said. “It’s a matter under review.”

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