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An old legal nightmare involving gas tank fires has come back to haunt Ford Motor Co. A growing number of class actions have been filed against the automaker over the safety of its Crown Victoria police cruiser. “We think the Ford Pinto was a disaster, and we think they have a potential disaster here,” says attorney Edward Rubin of Hamburg, Rubin, Mullin, Maxwell & Lupin of Lansdale, Pa., who this month filed a suit against Ford in Montgomery County, Pa., on behalf of all police departments in Pennsylvania, except for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. In the last three months, municipalities in New Jersey, Texas and Pennsylvania have filed suits seeking class action status against Ford, alleging that the cars’ gasoline tanks are prone to explode after rear-end collisions. Adding to the gas-tank controversy is a growing outcry by law enforcement officials in Arizona and Florida who are calling on Ford to remedy the situation immediately or recall the vehicles. The suits come amid reports that 11 police officers have died and seven have been seriously injured in such accidents over the last two decades, according to lawyers involved in the litigation and Ford Motor Co. The most recent Crown Victoria fatality occurred on June 12 in Arizona, when 25-year-old officer Robert Nielsen’s fuel tank burst into flames after a crash in a Phoenix suburb. Plaintiffs in all cases are seeking to have Ford make immediate safety modifications to the gas tank, which is behind the rear axle. Modifications, expected to cost about $400 per car, include adding protective shields or installing new tanks with a bladder, or protective inner liner. 400,000 IN U.S. If the city of New Brunswick, N.J., gets its way, Ford will have to pay to improve the gas tanks on all 400,000 Crown Victorias that are on the road nationwide. That’s what the city is seeking in what was the first class action filed against Ford involving the police cruiser. New Brunswick’s class action, filed in May, seeks national status against Ford. City of New Brunswick v. Ford Motor Co., No. L-460802 (Middlesex Co., N.J., Super. Ct.). Attorneys for New Brunswick said they hope national pressure will force Ford to take action. “We think this is a problem that has national ramifications. It is not a New Jersey problem. It is a national problem,” says attorney Anne Ritter of the Ness Motley firm in Mt. Pleasant, S.C. “It would be futile to find a fix for vehicles in one state and not another. … For Ford to deal with this, we believe to have pressure put on them nationally, they hopefully can try to immediately address the safety of the vehicle.” Shortly after New Jersey’s case surfaced, other municipalities followed suit. On July 2, officials in Nueces County, Texas, filed a class action against Ford on behalf of all Texas counties and cities. The suit seeks to make Ford pay for safety modifications to roughly 25,000 Crown Victorias in Texas. Nueces County, Texas v. Ford Motor Co., No. CAC-02-297 (S.D. Texas). Ford “has delayed and stalled and tried to hide the issue instead of fixing the problem, and the problem needs to be fixed,” says attorney David Perry of Perry & Haas of Corpus Christi, Texas, who represents Nueces County in the case and recently settled four police car fire cases with Ford for an undisclosed amount. One week after the Texas case was filed, officials in Pennsylvania filed a similar suit in the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas. Montgomery Township v. Ford Motor Co., nos. 02-12125 and 02-12556 (Montgomery Co., Pa., Ct. C.P.). “I think the best argument is that our police officers are doing dangerous jobs to begin with,” Rubin says. “And when they pull a car off to the side of the road, they’re vulnerable to getting into rear end crashes.” Rubin also notes that this is not a personal injury suit. “This is a suit of breach of warranty asking Ford to take corrective action to fix the gas tank.” Ford, which has sold 500,000 Crown Victoria police cruisers in the last two decades and controls roughly 85 percent of the police car market, maintains the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor is safe. “There is no safety defect to the car,” said Sara Tatchio, safety communications manager for Ford. “We believe it’s very safe.” According to Tatchio, the Crown Victoria has passed Ford’s 50-mph rear-end crash tests, which exceed federal standards that call for 30-mph tests. She also says that tank fires are rare and occur in crashes involving very high speeds. “We consider these as horrible accidents that are very sad and very tragic,” Tatchio says. “I don’t think there is any blame” belonging to Ford. Ford’s Crown Victorias have been under investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration since November, according to Ford Motor and attorneys involved in the litigation. The federal agency opened the probe after Ford issued a technical service bulletin in October to dealers advising them to change a bolt and a metal tab on the police cruisers, which were believed to have punctured or ripped fuel tanks in some accidents. Tatchio said Ford has been working closely with the government regarding the matter, as well as with a police advisory board. “We do have a sense of urgency,” she said. “We want to try to improve the safety for police officers. That’s something we’re very committed to.” A key class action criterion — manageability, or the ability of the courts to manage the action — may be a sticking point, legal experts assert. This may be particularly evident in the New Jersey case, where national status is sought. “The more states that get involved, the more unmanageable that case will get … at some point, when you have to apply so many different laws the case becomes unmanageable,” says W. David Edwards, a constitutional law and products liability expert in the Winston-Salem, N.C., office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. Attorney Stephanie Scharf, a partner at Chicago’s Jenner & Block and chairwoman of the firm’s products liability and mass tort defense practice, is skeptical that the plaintiffs will meet the criteria for class action status. “One hurdle concerns the commonality requirement,” Scharf says. “For a class to be certified, there has to be commonality of factual and legal issues among class members. I can imagine scenarios where there is not the requisite commonality.”

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