By DAVID KRAVETS
OAKLAND, Calif. — In an unprecedented move, a state judge ordered the recall of as many as 1.7 million Ford cars and trucks Wednesday, accusing the automaker of "concealment of a dangerous condition."
It was the first time a judge in the United States had ordered a car recall. The order only applies to vehicles sold in California.
Superior Court Judge Michael E. Ballachey said Ford knew the vehicles were prone to stalling, especially when the engine was hot, but failed to alert consumers.
The judge, based in Alameda County, 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."
Ballachey 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 agencies normally order recalls, but Ballachey said state law gives him the power to issue Wednesday’s recall.
Ford officials disagreed, and said that even if he did have such power, "a recall would serve no purpose because there is nothing to fix," Ford spokesman Jim Cain said.
The automaker already is 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.
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 plaintiffs claim the vehicles stall because wrongly placed ignition devices were exposed to excessive heat and stress.
Ballachey said Ford repeatedly deceived federal regulators by claiming there were no problems with its ignition devices in vehicles in the 1983-95 model years.
Ballachey 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.
"Ford has been aware, since at least 1982, that installing its TFI ignition modules on the distributors … made them inordinately prone to failure due to exposure to excessive heat and thermal stress," Ballachey’s ruling said.
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, and said Wednesday it disagreed with the judge’s ruling.
"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.
Ford said it does not know how much a California recall would cost. Its 1996 internal documents projected that Ford would spend nearly $300 million to fix the TFI problems nationwide for its 1994-1996 models.
The largest auto recall was in 1995, when 10 manufacturers had to fix seat belts on 8.8 million cars because the buckles sometimes failed to latch or unlatch.
The largest recall by a single automaker was in 1996, when Ford recalled about 8.7 million vehicles that had an ignition switch in the steering column because the switch caught fire in hundreds of vehicles.
After complaints from customers and dealers about stalling, Ford recalled 1.1 million 1984-85 vehicles in 1987 to repair their ignition devices.
Jeff Fazio, a lawyer for the plaintiffs who filed the class-action suit, said: "I think it’s a great day for consumers."
Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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