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Officer Burned In Crown Vic Settles Suit

Phoenix officer, Ford reach deal

Aug 11, 2004 | Arizona Republic

It wasn't about the money when Phoenix police Detective Jason Schechterle sued Ford Motor Co. for negligence after he was horribly burned in an on-duty crash.

His lawsuit and others like it effectively made the nation's most popular police cruiser safer for officers across the country.

On Tuesday, Schechterle and his lawyer announced a confidential settlement with Ford. The auto giant also recently settled with the family of Chandler police Officer Robert Nielsen, who was killed in June 2002, as well as with the families of officers killed in similar fiery crashes in New York, Texas and Florida. The dead officers burned alive after their Crown Victoria police cruisers exploded on impact.

"I did not want this to happen to any other officer," Schechterle said when his settlement was announced to The Arizona Republic.

"We're not just statistics on a piece of paper. The officers driving these cars have families. They have lives. Ford makes these cars, and they have the obligation to make them safe under any driving conditions."

As a result of the lawsuits, the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, once maligned for its fuel-tank design and placement, has undergone changes to make it less likely that the tanks will rupture in hard rear-impact crashes.

Last year, Ford agreed to install a system of safety shields to Crown Victoria fuel tanks to protect them from punctures on impact. Ford subsequently offered an optional fire-suppression system in its Police Interceptors, starting with 2005 models.

Phoenix attorney Patrick McGroder said remedial efforts made by Ford have saved the lives of as many as five law enforcement officers across the country in the past year.

The settlements announced Tuesday end wrongful-death and personal-injury litigation stemming from four crashes in Arizona since 1998 that killed three law enforcement officers and injured Schechterle.

Terms are confidential.

"I would hope that the toll taken in terms of lives had a far greater impact on presenting a great impetus on Ford to help solve this problem than mere dollars and cents," McGroder said. "To their credit, Ford Motor Company has made significant changes in these vehicles, and I commend them for that."

Safety proponents say the placement of the fuel tank, behind the rear axle and ahead of the trunk, made the cruisers prone to punctures from suspension and brake parts.

Many police forces, including those in Phoenix, Mesa, Paradise Valley and Chandler, have installed fuel-cell bladders, inspired by race cars, inside the tanks of their Crown Victoria police cars. The bladders fit inside the existing fuel tanks and are designed to prevent leakage after a crash. The police agencies are installing bladders at their own expense.

"I sleep better at night knowing our police cars have the shields and bladders," Schechterle said. "I do believe that those are safer."

At least 15 police officers nationwide have died in post-collision fires in the Crown Victoria. On July 23, an Arlington, Texas, police officer was seriously burned on his legs after his patrol car was rear-ended by a sport utility vehicle during a traffic stop.

Ford has steadfastly claimed that the patrol cars and their fuel tanks are safe and that the rear-impact crashes were so severe that the tank punctures were not preventable.

Crown Victorias, which make up about 85 percent of the nation's police-car fleets, are favored by law enforcement agencies for their sturdy rear-wheel-drive, full-frame design; roomy interiors and trunks; and powerful V-8 engines.

Schechterle said he remains committed to ensuring the safety of police cars: "My worry that other police officer families will go through this still looms very heavily."

He has undergone 46 surgeries since a speeding taxicab slammed into the back of his patrol car on March 26, 2001. The cruiser, hit at an estimated 115 mph, burst into flames, and Schechterle suffered disfiguring burns to his face, neck, head and hands.

He was rescued by firefighters who happened to be at the intersection when the crash occurred.

A priest gave him last rites in the operating room.

But Schechterle has rallied back. Just 10 months after the accident, he jogged with the Olympic torch through Phoenix. And in October 2002, Schechterle's wife, Suzie, gave birth to the couple's third child. Schechterle returned to work in November 2002, at a desk job in Phoenix police's public information office. This year, he became a homicide detective, although he is still on light duty and does not handle his own cases.

"It's always been about the fact that of all the police officers who died, I'm the one who got a firetruck in my intersection," he said. "They should have got the same opportunities to go home to their families.

"We need to make sure this doesn't happen to another police officer."

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