Ford Motor Co. must replace defective ignition devices on an estimated 2 million California vehicles prone to stalling, a judge ruled Friday.
The order, which would cost Ford an estimated $300 million, came months after Alameda County Superior Court Judge Michael E. Ballachey ordered the vehicles recalled as part of a statewide class-action suit that could develop into a national recall.
It follows other recalls of Ford vehicles in recent months, and the massive recall of Firestone tires on some Ford Explorers that were linked to tread separations and deaths.
Ballachey, who ordered replacement of the devices based on advice from a court-appointed expert, found that Ford concealed the shabby parts from government inspectors.
Even with the fix, which may not happen for more than a year as the legal wrangling continues, the cars still may stall in traffic. But plaintiffs' attorneys and consumer groups said it was the best of three recall options.
"It's problematic, but there is less likelihood that they will stall with the new modules," said Jeff Fazio, the lead attorney in the case against Ford. Fazio called Friday's ruling a victory for Ford owners in California.
The Detroit automaker denies the devices are defective and stall, but has settled hundreds of wrongful death, injury and other suits in connection to allegations of Ford vehicles stalling.
Ballachey, the nation's only judge to order a vehicle recall, found last year that Ford was warned by an engineer that high temperatures would cause the device to fail and stall the engine.
Internal documents show that Ford confirmed the problem in internal studies, and could have moved the module to a cooler spot for an extra $4 per vehicle.
Ballachey said Ford concealed the information from federal safety regulators, who were studying hundreds of complaints about Ford vehicles stalling. The government found no safety problems with the modules, but a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration official said the government would not have closed the case if Ford had given the agency key documents unveiled in the class-action case.
"Had that information been in hand, I would not have closed either investigation without appropriate resolution," said Michael B. Brownlee, the former director of the NHTSA's defects investigative arm.
Under the recall proposal, Ford would replace the older modules with modern, heat-resistant versions. But they still would be placed along the distributor and exposed to high temperatures, which could cause them to stall.
Nevertheless, Fazio and consumer groups agree with the method. A second option, mounting the ignition devices in a new location, could take years to engineer whereas a new, modern ignition device could be mounted immediately.
"When cars are stalling on the highway, time is of the essence," said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Auto Safety.
A third option, for Ford to buy back affected vehicles, would not be fair to the poor because they would only get fair market value and might not be able to afford a new car, analysts said.
Regardless, Ford said it would appeal the recall order, which affects all 1983-1995 Ford models in California an estimated two million cars and trucks. The automaker said judges do not have the same power as does the NHTSA to order a vehicle recall.
"We don't think there's anything that needs to be replaced. Our ignition system is as good as anybody's," Ford attorney Warren Platt said after hearing the judge's order.
Similar ignition-device suits are pending in other states and could develop into a nationwide class action suit, affecting some 20 million vehicles.
In court papers, Ford said it would cost about $150 per vehicle to replace the ignition device. That's about $3 billion to fix every affected vehicle nationwide, although recalls usually reach only about 60 percent of affected vehicles.
The automaker also could be exposed to millions in punitive damages, but none of the suits has progressed to that stage.
By DAVID KRAVETS