The Ford Explorer Example
One of the most shocking and egregious aspects of a rollover accident is the automotive industry’s knowledge of the risks posed to the public and its deliberate willingness to accept those risks in order to turn a profit. The level of corporate greed, fraud and callousness toward human life shown by the automotive industry with regard to rollover accidents is staggering and has been widely documented in a number of high-profile lawsuits.
The causes of rollover accidents, some of which were discussed above, are no secret to the auto industry. Engineers have warned automotive company executives for decades about the dangers associated with vehicle rollover accidents. In fact, much of our current knowledge regarding these accidents has come directly from the internal documents and memoranda of automakers like Ford Motor Company (Ford).
In several widely publicized cases, Ford was held liable for extensive economic, noneconomic and punitive damages related to injuries and deaths caused by Ford Explorers rolling over. Courts and juries across the country have found that the Explorer’s design was dangerously unstable and prone to roll over. It is also now widely accepted that Ford designed and constructed the Explorer’s roof in a manner that was inadequately supported and defectively weak.
The Explorer was derived from the Bronco II, and many of the Explorer’s instability defects were knowingly carried over from the design of the Bronco II. Two years before the Bronco II’s introduction, in 1981, Ford measured the stability index (SI) of its chief competitor, the Jeep CJ7. The CJ7 had a well-established propensity to roll over at the time it was tested. As discussed above, a vehicle’s SI is the average of its front and rear track width, divided by the center of gravity height. The lower the SI rating, the less stable the vehicle. The Jeep’s SI was 2.04. This is a very low SI, which was no surprise considering the CJ7’s known stability problems. The Bronco II’s SI was even less than the CJ7, measuring only 1.86. In fact, the Bronco II was so unstable it would roll over at speeds as low as 30 mph on Ford’s test track. Ford’s engineers proposed improving the Bronco II’s stability index by widening its track width. However, because that modification would have delayed the Bronco II’s release date, thus reducing profits, the engineers’ proposal was rejected by Ford’s management.
As expected, people were being seriously injured or killed in Bronco II rollover accidents at the time the Explorer was being developed. Ford’s management was well-aware of the problems in both the Bronco II and the Explorer. In 1989, one year before the Explorer’s scheduled release date, Consumer Reports was preparing to release a damaging article about the Bronco II’s instability problems. Ford executives objected to the article and tried to stop its release.
An executive in Ford’s public affairs office wrote a memo regarding those efforts that was recently shown to the jury in a lawsuit against Ford relating to a rollover accident involving a 1997 Ford Explorer. (Buell-Wilson v. Ford Motor Company, 2008). The executive wrote:
“We think going in we were in deep trouble regarding our rollover rates…Our rollover rate is three times higher than the Chevy S-10 Blazer…[T]he [Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS)] data put us in a bad light…We think, however, that we have clouded their minds…”
Again, this was in 1989, one year before the Explorer’s release on the market. It is a clear acknowledgment that Ford executives not only knew about the stability problems in the Bronco II, but also made a concerted effort to conceal those defects from the public in order to preserve sales. They also knew in 1989 that they were going to use the same design and many of the same parts in the Explorer.
Rather than make the design improvements called for by their engineers, Ford utilized the Bronco II platform in the Explorer. Therefore, the Explorer had almost the exact same track width, high engine mount and elevated center of gravity as the Bronco II. In other words, they knowingly designed the Explorer to include all of the stability defects that were causing people to be injured and killed in Bronco II rollovers. Predictably, people began being catastrophically injured and killed in Explorer rollover accidents too.
Ford had another opportunity to improve the stability of the Explorer when it changed the suspension design for the 1995 – 1998 model years. Again, corporate greed reared its ugly head and financial considerations prevailed over public safety. According to a 1990 internal Ford document, also presented to the jury in the Buell-Wilson case, Ford decided:
“not to take advantage of the fact that the engine could be lowered with a[n] SLA type suspension. This decision was driven by early implementation and program cost.”
An examination of case law from around the country leads us to the same conclusions. Ford executives knew about all of the Explorer’s safety defects before it was first introduced to the market. Despite repeated warnings from its own engineers and employees, Ford executives decided not to fix the Explorer’s stability problems and roof defects.
Why did Ford executives consciously decide to sell a product that they knew would cause catastrophic personal injuries and deaths? Why did they fail to fix these known defects either before or after going to market? The answer is simple: to maximize profits. As a result of the fraudulent and malicious actions by Ford Motor Company, thousands of people have been severely injured and killed in Ford Explorer rollover accidents. Further, thousands more catastrophic injuries and deaths will undoubtedly ensue because millions of these vehicles are still on the nation’s roads.
The Ford Explorer is just one of many examples of the type of deceit, fraud and malice perpetrated on consumers by the auto industry on a daily basis. The trail of destruction and pain caused by auto industry negligence will only widen as the popularity of SUVs continues to increase. According to the NHTSA, in 2006 among all types of passenger vehicles, SUVs had the largest increase in new registrations, growing by 7.1 percent over the previous year. Unless an active and concerned citizenry demands change from lawmakers and industry alike, the number of people killed and catastrophically injured in vehicle rollover accidents will continue to rise.