Defense Motion Denied, Six-Fatality Case Moves Ahead

Automotive Litigation Reporter
Volume 21, Issue 21, Published 6/18/2002
Ignition System:
Wadkins v. Ford Motor Co.
Andrews Online Number

Defense Motion Denied, Six-Fatality Case Moves Ahead

A state court judge in California has denied the summary judgment motion of Ford Motor Co. in an ignition system defect case involving a six-fatality accident. The case is set for trial in September 2002. Earlier, the California Supreme Court had denied Ford's petition to stop the plaintiffs from "destructive testing" of the thick-film ignition module at issue. Wadkins et al. v. Ford Motor Co. et al., No. 99-189188, defendant's summary judgment motion denied (Cal. Super. Ct., Tulare County, 5/29/2002); See previous story in Automotive LR, April 23, 2002, P. 7.

Travis Morgan, Conrad Morgan, Jessica Ortega, Patricia Wadkins, Marissa Morgan and Jesalyn Ortega were killed on Dec. 11, 1998, when the 1991 Ford Tempo in which they were riding veered off the roadway, struck a bridge abutment, plunged into a 20-foot-deep canal and submerged upside-down.

Their survivors and estates filed suit in California Superior Court for Tulare County alleging that the TFI module had failed, causing the Tempo to stall and resulting in the loss of control. They claim Ford knew about TFI module defects in the 1991 Tempo and other vehicles.

In the testing dispute, the plaintiffs agreed that Ford experts could examine and test the module first, with the understanding that plaintiffs would do their contemplated destructive testing -- with Ford witnessing the process -- at a later date. Ford then moved for a protective order to stop the testing, which was denied by the trial court. The California Fifth District Court of Appeal denied Ford's petition for a writ of mandate, after which the automaker petitioned the California Supreme Court.

Ford said the testing would create the appearance of a defect; that it would not have an opportunity to test and verify the plaintiffs' findings; and that the jury would be unable to view the allegedly defective module.

The plaintiffs noted that Ford conducted extensive testing and inspection of the accident vehicle and TFI module prior to the proposed destructive testing, with hundreds of photographs and X-ray images of the TFI module taken by Ford's experts. They also said Ford will be allowed to observe and photograph the testing and inspection.

The plaintiffs cited a settled case in which the trial judge said, "Ford knew the vehicles were prone to stalling especially when the engine was hot, but failed to alert consumers." Howard v. Ford Motor Co., No. 763785-2 (Cal. Super. Ct., Alameda County); see Automotive LR, Nov. 6, 2001, P. 5.

The California Supreme Court denied Ford's petition on April 10.

On May 29 the trial court denied the automaker's motion for summary judgment.

The plaintiffs are represented by Benjamin Schonbrun and Michael D. Seplow of Schonbrun Seplow Harris Hoffman & Zeldes, LLP in Venice, Calif.

Ford Motor Co. is represented by Richard A. Derevan of Snell & Wilmer in Irvine, Calif., and by Roy M. Brisbois and Steven E. Meyer of Lewis, D'Amato, Brisbois & Bisgaard in Los Angeles.