Ford Motor Co. withheld evidence in a lawsuit over the fatal crash of an Econoline van, said a federal judge who decided that jurors will be told that certain Ford tests showed the vehicle was unsafe.
The world's second-largest automaker will be barred from challenging the 15-passenger van's handling and stability test results, which it withheld from plaintiffs' lawyers, said U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman. Julia Whitley, a foster mother of nine, and one of her foster children were killed in 1996 when their Econoline van rolled over.
"I find it totally reprehensible that I was misled and the plaintiffs were misled," said Gettleman, who also ordered Ford to pay attorney fees and court costs to plaintiffs' lawyers for their efforts to obtain the evidence.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported last April that vans carrying more than 10 passengers were three times as likely to roll over as those with fewer than five riders. The 15-passenger vans rolled over 52 percent of the time in fatal crashes, compared with 33 percent for other vehicles, NHTSA reports show. A statement released by Ford before Gettleman's ruling said the vans are "very safe" and that drivers should take into account the higher center of gravity on such vehicles when loaded. Ford spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes, when told of the judge's decision, said the company stood by its previous statement.
There have been 70 lawsuits involving the Econoline, said James Lowe, an attorney for Whitley's husband, Daniel Whitley.
Gary Hayden, the leader of a team of Ford lawyers that produces evidence for lawsuits, declined to comment on the ruling. He had told the judge that Ford made an "honest mistake" in not producing the test results.