Why Are Feds So Slow With Recalls?

Teri Hatcher goes glam as she glides down the red carpet at the 13th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2007, in Los Angeles.
AP Photo/Reed Saxon
After the Ford/Firestone tire fiasco and now the Ford ignition switch recall, people are asking why the government didn't act sooner.

CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson says in most defect investigations, it gets down to how willing companies are to turn over damning information about themselves. Not very willing often seems to be the answer.

For example, in the case of the Ford Motor Co., time and time again, the automaker has been accused of concealing vital safety information:

  • In Aerostar and Bronco II rollovers in 1997 and 1998;
  • In steering column fires in 1999;
  • And in five separate investigations of those controversial ignition switches.
Tom Feaheny, a vice president of car engineering at Ford for years, says the car maker even kept its own engineers in the dark.

“In my experience, mostly with Ford since about 1980, the company has deliberately withheld information from its own engineers and own organization of what serious problems were happening in the field,” says Feaheny.

“They apparently were motivated by the fear the engineers would learn about a problem, would develop a fix to a problem which would then be the basis for some kind of a recall mandated by the government or otherwise.”

And Ford is not alone. Last week, it was discovered that Continental General Tire allegedly withheld documents from government investigators in 1993, and Mitsubishi recently admitted concealing customer complaints for decades.

When caught, the maximum penalty for these giant corporations is less than $1 million and that's only if the statute of limitations hasn't expired. The new bill about to be signed into law as a result of the Ford-Firestone tire scandal will up the maximum fine to $15 million.

The California judge who Wednesday ordered up to 1.7 million Fords recalled in the state to fix the ignition system problem, accused the automaker of deliberately concealing a dangerous design flaw that can cause the vehicles to stall in traffic.

The ruling compounds Ford's troubles as the automaker tries to steer its way out of the Firestone tire recall crisis.

Ford has insisted the ignition module at issue is safe, and said it will appeal, arguing the California judge had no authority to issue the order.

Never before has a U.S. judge ordered an automotive recall. And while government agencies normally order recalls, in this case, Superior Court Judge Michael E. Ballachey said he was authorized by state law to take the action.

The device was put on 29 models between 1983 and 1995, including the Taurus, LTD, Ranger, Bronco, Mustang and Escort, according to Ford. During that period, Taurus was one of the top-selling cars in America.

Judge Ballachey said Ford sold as many as 23 million vehicles with the flaw, but his jurisdiction does not extend beyond California. Similar class-acion suits are pending in Alabama, Maryland, Illinois, Tennessee and Washington.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducted three probes into stalling of Ford vehicles between 1984 and 1987 but found no defects, agency spokesman Tim Hurd said Wednesday.

After the verdict, plaintiffs' attorney Robert Holstein said the other suits will proceed with the focus on Illinois, where state judges can permit national class-action suits.

The automaker has settled dozens of wrongful-death and personal-injury lawsuits nationwide in which a Ford vehicle was suspected of stalling. Ford never admitted wrongdoing.

SusanVon Ritter, a plaintiff in the California class action, sold her Taurus after a stalling incident on a state highway several years ago.

“I was petrified. The kids were screaming and crying. I thought this was it,” she said. “I was lucky. I was able to get to the side of the road before being rammed.”

In his ruling, Ballachey said Ford knew since at least 1982 that the vehicles were prone to stalling, especially when the engine was hot, but failed to alert consumers and repeatedly deceived federal regulators by claiming the modules weren't flawed.

Hush Money?
Could lives have been saved if Firestone's settlement agreements did not require a vow of silence on the part of the litigants?

Click here to read the 60 Minutes II report.

The automaker said a recall is unnecessary. “These vehicles are safe,” Ford attorney Richard Warmer said.

“We're talking about a lot of old cars and old trucks, two-thirds of which have more than 120,000 miles on the odometer,” added spokesman Jim Cain.

The judge appointed a referee to study three options, including ordering Ford to remount the modules away from the engine. Ballachey set an October 27th hearing to determine the next step.

The Center for Auto Safety estimated that a California recall would cost Ford at least $125 million.

The automaker already is involved in recalling 6.5 million Firestone tires standard equipment on Ford Explorers that are being investigated in connection with more than 100 highway deaths.

The largest recall by an automaker was in 1996, when Ford recalled 8.7 million vehicles because of a steering column defect.