OAKLAND, Calif. A state judge yesterday ordered the recall of as many as 1.7 million Ford cars and trucks sold in California, the first time a judge has issued a vehicle-recall order.
Superior Court Judge Michael E. Ballachey accused the automaker of “concealment of a dangerous condition,” saying Ford knew the vehicles were prone to stalling, especially when the engine was hot, but failed to alert consumers.
The order targets ignition modules installed on 29 models including the popular Taurus, Mustang, Escort and Bronco primarily in the 1980s and early ‘90s.
Ford officials disagreed and said the company would appeal because it doesn’t believe Judge 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.
The ruling is another blow to Ford, which already is involved in the recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires that were standard equipment on some Ford trucks and sport utility vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating dozens of deaths linked to the tires.
The judge, based in Alameda County, wrote that Ford sold as many as 23 million vehicles prone to stalling nationwide.
Similar class-action suits are pending in Maryland, Alabama, Illinois, Tennessee and Washington.
Judge 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 yesterday showed they had failed to sway him.
“This case was about concealment of a dangerous condition,” he said from the bench.
Government agencies normally order recalls, but Judge Ballachey said state law gives him the power to issue the 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.
Judge Ballachey also set an Oct. 27 hearing to determine the next steps in the case. He could impanel a jury then to assess punitive damages against Ford.
The 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.
Judge 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.
“Ford has been aware, since at least 1982, that installing its [thick film ignition] modules on the distributors … made them inordinately prone to failure due to exposure to excessive heat and thermal stress,” the ruling said.
The suit challenged the company’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 ignition systems were flawed and said yesterday 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 a 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 for its 1994-1996 models.
Jeff Fazio, an attorney for the plaintiffs who filed the class-action suit, said: “I think it’s a great day for consumers.”