The Ford Explorer has been plagued by rollover and stability problems since its inception as the Ford Bronco II in March 1983. More than 25 years later, Ford is still battling the stability problems that plagued the vehicle at its inception and fighting losing battles in courts across the country.
Just recently, the United States Supreme Court rejected Ford's appeal of an $83 million verdict in California to a young woman who was paralyzed when her Ford Explorer lost control and rolled over. The California jury initially awarded the young woman more then $300 million. However, the trial court lowered that amount and the Court of Appeals lowered the verdict again. The Supreme Court ultimately upheld the final award of $83 million, which included $28 million in compensatory damages and $55 million to punish Ford for designing and selling the vehicle with full knowledge of the Explorer's stability problems.
PBS found that Ford's Bronco II — the precursor to the Ford Explorer — suffered from stability and rollover problems from the day it was rolled out in 1983. According to the PBS report, even Ford engineers were "flipping these things over" in test drives.
Ford engineer Fred Parrill acknowledged that [Ford] knew that the Bronco II was killing people in rollovers much more often than its rivals.
In fact, tests showed that the Bronco II would tip up off of its wheels at speeds as low as 20 miles per hour.
To make the Bronco II less likely to roll over, Ford engineers proposed to widen the vehicle by two inches. But widening the vehicle would have delayed Job 1 — the first date of production. Management decided not to widen the vehicles.
Ford engineers knew there was a problem and knew how to fix it. Engineers told management they need to widen the vehicle by two inches. However, the delay would have cost Ford money, so management scrapped the plan and produced the Bronco II as is, knowing of the stability problem.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rated the Bronco II the most deadly SUV on the road.
The Ford Explorer grew directly out of the Bronco II. The Explorer was made for a family, but kept the rugged characteristics — and the stability problems — of the Bronco II. In fact, an internal Ford memo from May 1987 said that the stability of the UN46 — the Ford Explorer Prototype — was worse than the Bronco II, but could be improved by widening and lowering the vehicle.
Just eight months before Explorer was to roll off the assembly line, Bronco II failed handling tests conducted by Consumer Reports magazine. The magazine warned readers away from the vehicle.
An internal Ford memo said that the Consumer's Union told Ford: "You have a real problem" with your Bronco II.
Alarmed, Ford immediately sent its engineers to the company's Arizona proving grounds to put the Explorer prototype through the Consumer Reports tests. When the Explorer was put through the same tests, it repeatedly tipped up off the ground. Ford engineers scrambled to find a fix.
Ford tests showed that the Explorer "rolls over" in 5 of 12 J-turn tests.
Ford tried a number of small fixes, such as tire pressure and suspension changes, but they were not enough. Ultimately, the Explorer suffered the same problem as the Bronco II and needed two more inches in width to achieve a safe level of stability.
Ford's management, under Don Petersen, . . . again decided – as it had in the case of the Bronco II – to make a series of smaller fixes. But the company refused to widen the vehicle.
Ford executives admitted that one of the reasons Ford refused to widen the vehicle was because it would lose money if it waited for the fix. Instead, the company again sold vehicles to the public that it knew would roll over.
The Explorer's inherent stability problems came to light in the mid-1990s when Explorers began to rollover after Firestone tire failures. In 2001, Firestone ended its 100 year relationship with Ford Motor Company. In a letter to Ford, Firestone's chairman, John T. Lampe said:
Today, I am informing you that Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. is ending its tire supply relationship with Ford Motor Company.
Business relationships, like personal ones, are built upon trust and mutual respect. We have come to the conclusion that we can no longer supply tires to Ford since the basic foundation of our relationship has been seriously eroded. This is not a decision we make lightly after almost 100 years of history. . . .
Our analysis suggests that there are significant safety issues with a substantial segment of Ford Explorers. We have made your staff aware of our concerns. They have steadfastly refused to acknowledge those issues.
In sworn testimony before Congress, Mr. Lampe – head of Firestone – said:
There is something wrong with the Ford Explorer. The testing and the accident data we have submitted prove it.
Finally, in 2002, after 20 years of stability and rollover problems, Ford finally widened the Explorer. However, Ford resolutely denies that it widened the vehicle because of stability problems.
Late model Ford Explorers are still driving on our roads and highways. Each year, more innocent passengers are killed or paralyzed because of stability and rollover problems knew about more than 25 years ago. Ford's conduct in knowingly putting dangerous and defective vehicles on the roadway is inexcusable.
Despite its Explorer defect problems and other safety-related problems, Ford is positioned as the most successful auto maker in the United States and earned $1 billion in profit during the 3rd quarter of 2009. During that time Ford had more than $30 billion in gross revenue — bringing in more than $340 million per day! It's time that Ford is held accountable for putting profits over safety and for valuing money more than lives.
Fortunately, juries across the country are taking their duty seriously and holding Ford accountable for its actions. In 2009, Ford lost at least four vehicle defect cases with verdicts of $10 million or more.
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Brett Emison is currently a partner at Langdon & Emison, a firm dedicated to helping injured victims across the country from their primary office near Kansas City. Mainly focusing on catastrophic injury and death cases as well as complex mass tort and dangerous drug cases, Mr. Emison often deals with automotive defects, automobile crashes, railroad crossing accidents (train accidents), trucking accidents, dangerous and defective drugs, defective medical devices.