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Ford Owners Could Face Lethal Danger In Design Flaw

Feb 21, 2005 | The Monitor

There are no family photos visible in the Gonzalez home.

There are no pictures of Ramon Gonzalez’s deceased mother, 11- year-old Sandy’s first communion or of 10-year-old Mona’s birthday parties.

There are no family portraits hanging on the wall or framed snapshots arranged on the kitchen counter.

The family lost most of its photos and most of its 6,800-square-foot dream home when a fire thought to have started in their parked 1994 Mercury Grand Marquis spread from the garage across the roof.

It’s a nightmare that the Gonzalez family shares with dozens of other Ford Motor Company vehicle owners who blame a speed control deactivation switch for spontaneously igniting. The couple is now suing Ford and the company that designed the switch to regain the damages they lost in the fire.

A blaring alarm roused Ramon and Sandra Gonzalez from their sleep around 12:30 a.m. on Oct. 29, 2002.

"We were confused," Sandra said. "We didn’t know what it was."

They opened their bedroom door, and the steel door that closed off the garage, to find the garage full of fire. Four fire departments responded to douse the fire, but could not save the home, which Ramon’s construction company Nomar built.

Insurance adjusters later determined the family car’s speed control deactivation switch was to blame the same switch lawyers say was involved in the company’s January recall of 800,000 F-series vehicles. The family’s car had not been running since about 7:30 p.m., when Sandra returned from buying groceries. The family received $208,000 about $170,000 less than the appraisal.

They spent more than a year trying to rebuild the home, which still lacks carpeting and fixtures.

The girls still sleep downstairs in what will become the family room as their father works to rebuild the upstairs. The case is set for trial in August in 139th state District Judge Juan Partida’s court.

The Gonzalez story might not be an unfortunate freak occurrence.

One of their lawyers, represents five other Hidalgo County families suing Ford. His law firm is handling dozens of cases in which vehicles fires started from the speed control deactivation switch.

When a driver turns on the cruise control device that keeps the vehicle at a constant speed, the switch acts as a safety net, stopping the automobile if the brakes don’t.

The switch remains electrically wired, even when the vehicle is off. Located in the engine next to flammable fluids, the switch can short circuit and catch the fluid on fire, the attorney said.

In January, Ford voluntarily issued a safety recall on 2000 model year Ford F-150s, Ford Expeditions and Lincoln Navigators, and 2001 F-Series Supercrew trucks— affecting nearly 800,000 vehicles. In 1999, the company recalled almost 300,000 vehicles for a faulty speed control deactivation switch, including the 1992 and 1993 Crown Victoria, Lincoln Town Cars and Mercury Grand Marquis.

The Rio Grande Valley is a popular market for the company’s vehicles. In 2004, Ford dealerships in the Rio Grande Valley sold 9,013 of the company’s vehicles, said Chuck Cueva, general sales manager for Boggus Ford in McAllen.

The attorney said there are an estimated 17 million Ford vehicles manufactured before 2003 that have the same switch. He gave The Monitor a spreadsheet obtained from Ford indicating 18 vehicle makes contain the switch — including some that have not been recalled.

Ford spokeswoman Kristen Kinley said the switches in those vehicles are not the same as those included in the company’s two recalls.

The company is working with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate Ford vehicle fires allegedly caused by the deactivation switches, she said.

NHTSA opened an investigation the on 2000 F-series in November 2004, which is still on-going, despite the company’s voluntary recall of those vehicles.

"We take any allegation of fire seriously. We have to look too at (each allegation) on a case-by-case basis," Kinley said. The investigations are sometimes difficult because the company can not always obtain access to the vehicle, she said.

She acknowledged that the switches might have been the origin of the fires in some cases, but said at this point in the investigation, the company has not found fires occurring anywhere near the same amount as in the recalled models.

"If we do see a similar pattern we will certainly take action if we draw a conclusions there is a link to the speed control deactivation," she said.

However, Kinley said in some of the company’s investigations into fires started in vehicles not included in recalls, the fires that were thought to have started in the cruise control deactivation switch actually were ignited by other causes, such as arson or faulty repairs.

For example, Kinley said in one case Jolly represents, the company’s investigation found that a fire in a 1998 F-150 was caused by improperly installed wiring.

The plantiffs lawyer disputes the company’s investigation findings and said the case is set for trial in April.

Regardless whether Ford decides to issue further recalls, life at the Gonzalez home is on hold as they await the outcome of their trial to continue rebuilding what they’ve lost.

In the meantime, the only moving object housed in their rebuilt garage is a seldom-used treadmill.

"We don’t park our car in the garage anymore," Sandra said.

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