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Lawsuits Give Ford Publicity Problem

Jan 22, 2003 | USA Today Ford Motor, working hard to put financial and quality problems behind it, is being dogged by high-profile court battles that are likely to generate publicity through the rest of the year.

The cases challenge product and engineering decisions made more than a decade ago and question the company's honesty.

On Wednesday, Ford asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its appeal of a $290 million punitive damage award from a California jury that said the automaker knew the roof of the Bronco sport-utility vehicle couldn't properly withstand a rollover. The case stemmed from a 1993 accident in which three people died. Ford says the Bronco's roof met federal regulations and engineering standards.

Also on Wednesday, a hearing was held in a Cleveland federal court on a request for class-action status in a case involving Crown Victoria police cars. Plaintiffs say thousands of departments bought cars with a design defect, making them unsafe for police work.

On Tuesday, a Chicago federal judge fined Ford for withholding tests plaintiff lawyers say showed its Econoline 15-passenger van was unsafe. Ford says it didn't conceal tests, but that tests sought by plaintiffs weren't relevant.

Every car company is subjected to a steady diet of lawsuits, but Ford has been a well-publicized target since August 2000, when millions of Firestone tires, most on Ford Explorers, were recalled. That's led to hundreds of lawsuits from accidents in which tires lost tread and Explorers rolled over.

The cases continue even though the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it found no design defect in the Explorer.

NHTSA also said it found no design defect in the Crown Victoria police car. Plaintiff lawyers say placement of the gas tank makes the car susceptible to fire if hit from behind at high speed. At least 13 officers have died in car fires.

NHTSA has issued warnings about the stability of the van. From 1990 to 2001, 647 people were killed in Econoline rollovers.

Ford spokesman Jon Harmon said the Crown Victoria and Econoline cases are difficult because the automaker dominates both niche categories and because police cars are subjected to dangerous duty, and the vans can be loaded with up to15 people who, Ford says, might not be wearing seatbelts.

The three cases in court this week could cost Ford in excess of $500 million this year, including damage awards and changes Ford is making to the police cars. But it's hard to determine how costly the steady stream of publicity is to Ford's reputation.

Corporate image consultant Eric Dezenhall says it might not matter much. "Exxon's business didn't suffer after Valdez, and the Explorer was still the best-selling SUV last year after two years of bad press."

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