Amanda Bronstad reports for The National Law Journal, an American Lawyer affiliate.
A lawsuit filed against Ford Motor Co. on behalf of consumers alleging economic damages tied to sudden acceleration comes months after Toyota Motor Corp. agreed to pay more than $1 billion in cash and repair costs to resolve similar claims.
The suit, filed on March 28, asserts that Ford, despite receiving hundreds of reports of electronics defects tied to sudden acceleration, failed to install brake override systems in some North American vehicles until 2010, even though it knew about problems as early as 2002. As a result, the cars manufactured during that interval put drivers in an "unreasonably dangerous" situation, the suit says.
Adam Levitt, a director at Grant & Eisenhofer who filed the suit, acknowledged similarities to the case against Toyota, which agreed on December 26 to settle hundreds of claims brought by consumers in a deal valued by plaintiffs attorneys at $1.3 billion.
"The cases are certainly facially similar in one respect: Each of the cases—Toyota on the one hand and Ford on the other—involved allegations of unintended acceleration of a wide range of cars," he said.
But he insisted that the Ford case was the result of a separate investigation that his firm undertook. "We looked at this from essentially the ground up, and so whatever analysis we did and conclusion we reached and whatever pleading choices we made, were facts and the law as it pertains to the Ford situation," he said.
As for the distinctions, he said, the Ford case focuses on the carmaker’s failure to install brake overrides, rather than targeting alleged electronics defects. Specifically, Ford began installing fail-safe mechanisms including brake overrides in its European models in 2005 but not in the United States until 2010.
Lawyers on the Toyota case initially focused on electronic defects, later adding allegations that the carmaker failed to install brake overrides.
The 11 law firms behind the Ford case opted to combine the complaints of 20 plaintiffs in 14 states into one consolidated class action, filed in federal court in West Virginia, rather than file separate lawsuits that could wind up in multidistrict litigation. The Toyota cases, coordinated as multidistrict litigation, were before U.S. District Judge James Selna in Santa Ana, Calif.
"We made a decision to file all of the cases, rather than overburden an already overburdened federal judiciary by filing 14 different cases that would ultimately be consolidated or transferred by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation in a single venue," Levitt said. Ford spokesman Jay Cooney did not return a call for comment.
Levitt, who joined Grant & Eisenhofer on January 28 along with two other attorneys from Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz, opened the firm’s first Chicago office and heads its new consumer practice group. Grant & Eisenhofer traditionally has been known for representing shareholders in litigation.
The complaint against Ford cites numerous investigations by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration into sudden acceleration by Ford vehicles. The latest, launched in 2010 soon after Toyota recalled nearly 10 million vehicles due to defects associated with that problem, has focused on defects including floor mat problems that might cause sudden acceleration.
"Despite Ford’s knowledge of the defective and unreasonably dangerous nature of its ETC [electronic throttle control] system and the risk it posed—and continues to pose—to Plaintiffs and the other Class members—Ford continued to design, manufacture, advertise, market, sell, and lease the Ford Vehicles with ETC systems and no proper fail-safe to override the Ford Vehicles’ inevitable electronic problems," the suit says. "Despite Ford’s express knowledge of this dangerous product defect, Ford repeatedly omitted the true facts about sudden unintended acceleration events from the federal government, courts, litigants, Plaintiffs, the other Class members, and the general public who purchased and/or leased Ford Vehicles."
The suit was filed on behalf of a nationwide class of people who purchased or leased a Ford vehicle made between 2002 and 2010 that had an electronic throttle but no fail-safe system, such as a brake override. It includes subclasses in 14 states: Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
In addition to Grant & Eisenhofer, the case is being handled by Spilman, Thomas & Battle in Charleston, W.Va., and Winston-Salem, N.C.; The DiCello Law Firm in Mentor, Ohio; Bucci Bailey & Javins in Charleston; Bartimus, Frickleton, Robertson & Gorny in Leawood, Kansas; Murray and Murray in Sandusky, Ohio; Searcy, Denney, Scarola, Barnhart & Shipley in West Palm Beach, Fla.; Siprut P.C. in Chicago; Bremer, Whyte, Brown & O’Meara in Newport Beach, Calif.; The Miller Law Firm in Rochester, Mich.; Davis, Bethune & Jones in Kansas City, Mo.; and Edgar "Hike" Heiskell, a solo practitioner in Charleston.
The vehicles at issue in the case include 19 models of Ford, including the Explorer, Focus and Taurus; eight Lincoln models, including the Town Car; and eight Mercury models, including the Grand Marquis and Sable.
The potential classes exclude personal injury or wrongful death claims. The claims include violations of the U.S. Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act and various state laws including breach of express and implied warranty laws, unjust enrichment, consumer protection and deceptive trade practices.