Stewart Parnell, who once oversaw Peanut Corporation of America, nearly seven years ago was sentenced to 28 years in prison. Parnell was 61 at the time, so effectively he was given a life sentence. His crime? Knowingly shipping salmonella-tainted peanuts to customers, which resulted in nine deaths and hundreds of people being sickened.
If the Justice Department held top automotive executives to the same standards as Parnell, perhaps Melvin and Voncile Hill might still be alive. The Georgia couple was killed in 2014 when their 2002 Ford F-250 Super Duty pickup truck blew out its right front tire, causing the truck to roll over. The Hills were crushed inside the truck. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Melvin and Voncile were respectively 74 and 62 when they were killed. The publication said they were farmers who were traveling from their home to pick up a tractor part.
A jury on Friday awarded the Hill’s children $1.7 billion in punitive damages, among the biggest verdicts in Georgia history and unusually large for an auto accident-related injury. The jury a day earlier awarded the Hill children $24 million in compensatory damages.
“More deaths and severe injuries are certain because millions of these trucks are on the road,” Gerald Davidson, an attorney representing the Hill’s children said in a statement.
It’s reasonable to assume that what swayed the jury in their unanimously gargantuan verdict was evidence that Ford knew the roofs of its Super Duty trucks were flimsy but nonetheless continued selling the vehicles. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, lawyers for the Hill’s children cited evidence showing the roofs on the Super Duty trucks failed the company’s own internal testing.
Court documents showed that Ford engineers developed a stronger roof for the Super Duty pickups in 2004 but the improved version wasn’t used until the 2017 model year. Court documents also revealed that Ford had identified 162 lawsuits and 83 similar incidents of roofs getting crushed involving 1999-2016 Super Duty trucks.
A Ford spokesman was quoted by the Associated Press and other publications as saying, “While our sympathies go out to the Hill family, we do not believe the verdict is supported by the evidence, and we plan to appeal.”
Likelihood of rollovers
Sorry, I don’t believe Ford’s management is mourning the deaths of Melvin and Voncile Hill, but rather the exposure to a $1.7 billion verdict the company’s lawyers no doubt will get reduced. If Ford knew the roofs of its Super Duty trucks were flimsy, it was a near sure thing that passengers would get injured or killed because of the defect.
The trade publication HotCars previously estimated that the 2016 Ford F-250 had a 24 percent chance of rolling over. It’s unlikely that earlier models of the truck, a supposedly commercial-grade version of Ford’s best-selling F-150, were any more stable.
It’s a wonder that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) would allow Ford to sell a truck with that kind of risk profile, but it’s not a surprise that Ford would knowingly sell cars and trucks with defects that put passengers at risk.
Ford has paid millions in fines and class action lawsuit settlements for knowingly selling low-cost Ford Focus and Fiesta cars with flawed transmissions that sometimes resulted in them shifting into neutral, even at higher speeds. The transmission problem also reportedly caused the cars to lurch forward, even when brakes were being applied. Ford argued that a car shifting into neutral at high speeds wasn’t a safety risk because drivers could pull off to the side of the road.
A Detroit Free Press investigation in 2019 revealed that Ford ignored early safety questions from the company’s lawyers and a veteran engineer’s warnings that the Focus and Fiesta models weren’t roadworthy, but the company kept selling the cars rather than make an expensive fix to the faulty technology. Ford went so far as to prepare talking points for its dealers on how to insist the defective cars were operating normally.
More recently, multiple lawsuits have alleged that Ford knew about design and battery flaws in its electric “Made in Mexico” Mustang but opted to sell the vehicle regardless. The issues forced Ford to recall and stop deliveries of the vehicle, for which it had no immediate fix. These lawsuits are in addition to some half dozen other damning lawsuits filed against Ford that I wrote about in July. Some known issues with Ford vehicles include SUVs that mysteriously catch fire, even when the ignition’s turned off.
Indications are that rather than being embarrassed by its alleged wrongdoings, Ford regards them as calculated litigation risks that are factored into its sales and marketing decisions. When Ford settled for $19.2 million in May with 40 attorneys general allegations that for years it deliberately exaggerated in its advertising the real-world economy of its hybrids and payload capacity of its Super Duty trucks, spokeswoman Cathie Hargett told the Detroit News, “We are pleased that the matter is closed without any judicial finding of improper conduct.”
Translation: “Legally, it wasn’t proven that we did anything wrong.” The response is indicative of a company that skates close to the line.
Goodyear’s defective tires
Ford is not alone allegedly selling automotive products that put passengers at great risk.
In June, the Associated Press revealed that Goodyear sold recreational vehicle tires it knew could fail and cause severe crashes, yet it didn’t recall them for as many as 20 years. Goodyear wouldn’t recall the tires even as late as March of this year, despite investigators finding that their failure caused crashes that killed eight people and injured 69 others from 1998 through 2009. Goodyear later relented.
Then there’s this class action lawsuit alleging that Ford, GM, and Volkswagen and a parts manufacturer of knowingly selling vehicles containing air bag inflators that are at risk of exploding. Two deaths and at least four injuries have been linked to such explosions. According to auto safety advocates quoted by the Associated Press, the allegations are similar to the Takata air bag saga that also involved air bag inflators and resulted in 28 deaths worldwide, hundreds of injuries and the largest automotive recall in U.S. history.
The AP quoted a former NHTSA administrator David Friedman as saying the automakers are avoiding a recall of the airbags because of the cost. While the NHTSA has been investigating the air bag inflators for seven years, Friedman said the technology is complex and the agency needs to develop a “slam dunk” case to avoid legal threats and lawsuits from the automakers.
“That’s one of the things that’s broken in the system,” Friedman said.
GM’s electric Hummer
Electric vehicles present a new frontier for safety issues. Automotive writers are dazzled by the ability of EVs to go from 0 to 60 mph in mere seconds but pay scant attention or consideration to their more limited abilities to go from 60 to a full stop.
From a Car and Driver review of GM’s monster electric Hummer:
“While we were wowed by its acceleration performance, we were disappointed by its braking performance. Slowing all the Hummer EV’s mass down to a stop from 70 mph took an extra long 211 feet and repeated runs resulted in noticeable brake fade. Yikes.”
The electric Hummer weighs more than 9,300 pounds, which means occupants of modest-sized vehicles in its path are likely goners if the Hummer rams into them.
Ralph Nader, whose seminal 1965 book “Unsafe at any Speed” documented how U.S. automakers were knowingly selling faulty vehicles, recently urged regulators to recall Tesla’s self-driving technology, calling it “one of the most dangerous and irresponsible actions by a car company in decades.”
The public is shortchanged by the Justice Department’s preference to focus solely on prosecuting peanuts cases and not also targeting automotive executives who knowingly sell faulty vehicles that kill and maim.
Admittedly, holding automotive CEOs and other top managers accountable would be a more formidable challenge.
The Detroit Free Press reported that when Ford engineers and lawyers first discovered issue with the Focus and Fiesta transmissions, they didn’t inform upper management “to contain liability.”
Said an unidentified engineer: “People tried not to overly communicate how big the problems were.”