In an unprecedented move, a state judge on Wednesday ordered the recall of as many as 1.7 million Ford cars and trucks sold in California, accusing the automaker of "concealment of a dangerous condition."
CBS News Correspondent John Blackstone says it was the first time a judge in the United States has ordered a vehicle recall.
The order targets ignition modules installed on 29 models, including the popular Taurus, Mustang, Escort and Bronco, primarily in the 1980s and early '90s.
"I don't think you have to kill somebody to have an unsafe car and I think we've discussed this ad nauseum," said Superior Court Judge Michael E. Ballachey. Maybe I'm just taking it too personally."
The judge said Ford knew about the stalling problem, especially when the engine was hot, but failed to alert consumers. And he seemed exasperated that the automaker continues to dispute his finding that many Fords built between 1983 and 1995 are dangerously prone to stalling.
"There was a failure of proof on that allegation
" said Ford attorney Richard Warmer.
Judge Ballachey said the case was not about allegations. "This case was about concealment of a dangerous condition, and that is inarguable that a car stalling I mean, I just think it defies common sense to suggest that if you take your car out on the freeway and go 70 mph and turn the motor off [you can] tell me that's safe."
Unchastened, moments later outside court Ford officials expressed their disagreement and said the company would appeal because it doesn't believe Ballachey has the authority to order a recall.
"Even if he did, a recall would serve no purpose because there is nothing to fix," Ford spokesman Jim Cain said in Detroit.
But Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety disagrees. "The tragedy is that during the appeal more Ford owners will die in stalling accidents that could have been avoided if the ignition module were replaced with a safer one."
Ford is already involved in the recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires, which were standard equipment on some Ford trucks and sports utility vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating dozens of deaths possibly linked to the tires.
The judge, based in Alameda County, Calif., wrote that Ford sold as many as 23 million vehicles prone to stalling nationwide.
Similar class action suits are pending in Alabama, Maryland, Illinois, Tennessee and Washington.
Ballachey had issued a tentative ruling in August hinting he would order the recall and accusing Ford of knowing for nearly two decades that the ignition modules were "flawed from the outset."
The judge gave Ford attorneys a chance to change his mind, but his ruling Wednesday showed they had failed to sway him.
"This case was about concealment of a dangerous condition," Ballachey read from the bench.
Government agecies normally order recalls, but Ballachey said state law gives him the power to issue Wednesday's recall.
The judge appointed a referee to study three options ordering Ford to take the module off the distributor and remount it off the engine, replacing the module with one from 1999-2000 model vehicles, or ordering a vehicle buyback.
Ballachey also set an October 27 hearing to determine the next steps in the case. He could impanel a jury then to assess possible punitive damages against Ford.
Wednesday's ruling was based on a class-action suit filed on behalf of 3.5 million current and former Ford owners in California.
The suit challenged Ford's placement of the thick film ignition, known as a TFI module, which regulates electric current to the spark plugs. In 300 models sold between 1983 and 1995, the module was mounted on the distributor near the engine block, where it was exposed to high temperatures.
Ford documents show the automaker was warned by an engineer that high temperatures would cause the device to fail and stall the engine, confirmed the problem in internal studies and could have moved the module to a cooler spot for an extra $4 per vehicle.
Ford has denied its TFI ignition systems were flawed.
"The record in this case does not demonstrate a safety problem," Ford attorney Richard Warmer said. "The recall is not justified by the evidence. These vehicles are safe."
The Center for Auto Safety estimated that any California recall alone would cost Ford at least $125 million.
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