Years of lawsuits and complaints raise new questions about Ford Escape recall

On August 8, 2005 Marta Baier made a decision that ended her life. Her 2003 Ford Escape accelerated out of control, and, unable to stop it, she jumped out, hitting her head on the pavement. She died less than an hour later in a Missouri hospital.

Two summers later, a 43 year-old mother died outside of Philadelphia, PA when her 2004 Ford Escape accelerated out of control, flipped and hit a school bus.

Ford settled lawsuits in both of these cases without admitting liability – in one case, paying the victim's family and their attorney more than $1 million, according to court records.

But it wasn't until 17 year-old Saige Bloom's 2002 Ford Escape flipped and crashed in Payson, AZ in January of this year that Ford publicly acknowledged the discovery of an acceleration problem in these model year Escapes. Bloom was killed after being thrown from the SUV.

Last month, after the government opened an investigation , Ford recalled more than 500,000 of the Escapes , model years 2001-2004, and Mazda recalled more than 200,000 2001-2008 Tributes , its sister SUV.

In the chronology of events leading up to the recall, Ford describes an incident in "late January or early February 2012" in which it was alleged that the throttle stuck open on a 2002 model year Ford Escape." The automaker had the opportunity to inspect the vehicle in June of this year, it said, ultimately leading to the massive recall.

Saige Bloom was driving a 2002 Escape the day she died in late January, 2012. The ABC15 Investigators were there when a Ford representative inspected her vehicle in June in Payson.

Inspections of all three wrecked Ford Escapes in Missouri, Pennsylvania and Arizona found the same issue: the speed control cable's plastic cover broken, the cable stuck under the engine cover, forcing the throttle open – and the SUVs to accelerate at very high speeds.

Ford's recent recall seems to be quick action to fix a new problem. But the ABC15 Investigators found wrongful death suits, dozens of complaints, even a warning from Ford itself that go back years.

The only thing a driver can do to effectively stop the car when this happens is put it into neutral, Ford said, and steer it to the side of the road safely.

AUGUST 2005: NEAR ST. LOUIS, MO

"It's shocking to me it could happen again the exact same way, seven years later," said St. Louis attorney Patrick Hagerty. He represented the Baier family in a wrongful death lawsuit against Ford filed after Marta's death.

When her Escape began accelerating, Marta was driving her 16 year-old son Stephen home from a music lesson, Hagerty said. She pulled the emergency brake almost all the way up, he said, but "eventually, she just couldn't stop it."

"She told Stephen they were going to have to abandon the car," he said.

Stephen jumped out and survived, but when his mother jumped, her head hit the pavement. She died of blunt force trauma to the head, according to the police report.

OCTOBER 2005: FORD WARNS DEALERS

Two months after the Missouri crash, Ford sent a warning to its dealers as an update to another recall on the accelerator cables for 2002-2004 model year Escapes. An incorrect repair on the accelerator cable, it said, could cause damage to the speed control cable, which sits next to it in an Escape's engine.

"I think that certainly they were aware of a problem with the speed control cable," Hagerty said, adding that it's "very possible that the subsequent notice in October of ‘05 was in direct response to our accident."

Ford tells the ABC15 Investigators "we had some anecdotal knowledge from our dealers in 2005 that they had to replace speed control cables because of damage during the accelerator cable repairs, which led us to issue an updated dealer bulletin to explain the proper repair procedures." But, the company denies that they knew the problem could lead to stuck throttles.

Read Ford's full statement below.

When the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began investigating this problem last month, the agency identified 99 complaints from owners of stuck throttles in 2001-2004 Escapes and Tributes equipped with V6 engines.

The complaints were all filed with the government and available to Ford – and they date back more than a decade.

Asked why NHTSA didn't push Ford to issue an earlier recall, the agency said it "carefully considers the more than 40,000 consumer complaints it receives each year," and takes appropriate action when necessary. Right now, the agency says it is waiting to evaluate documents submitted by Ford and Mazda before it concludes its investigation.

Read NHTSA's full statement below.

A CALL FOR ACTION

"I think Ford has known about this since 2005," said former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook, referring to the year the carmaker sent dealers the warning about damaging the speed, or cruise, control cable. "They've known since 2005 that the cruise control cable is a problem."

But, instead of replacing the cable in its recall,

Ford says it will fix the problem by raising the engine cover. If it's high enough, it will prevent the kinked cable from sticking under it.

Claybrook calls this an attempt to label the issue a new problem, differentiating it from older complaints and possibly allowing them to avoid hefty government fines.

"If they discover a defect, they have to report it very expeditiously to the agency," she said, "and, if they don't, then they're subject to civil penalties."

Ford declined further comment about this issue or the earlier lawsuits, saying it's involved in both active litigation and an open NHTSA investigation into this issue and can't provide any additional information at this time. But the automaker did point out that settling lawsuits is not unusual, given the fact that "95% of all civil litigation is resolved outside of court."

THE CRASHES CONTINUE

Less than two months ago, near Houston, TX, Tammy Graham and her two young sons thought they would die when their 2001 Ford Escape accelerated out of control.

"I told my sons, ‘Hold on, Mommy can't stop the car,'" Graham said.

The police report says "she turned the vehicle to the left and attempted to drag the vehicle along the freeway wall to make it slow gradually." But Graham turned the SUV too sharply, according to the report, and "and the front struck the wall in full force."

She and her sons walked away from the crash, but Graham thinks if Ford had issued a recall years ago to fix this problem, they could have prevented her crash, as well as accidents around the country – including the Payson crash that killed Saige Bloom.

"She is a hero," Graham said, "she will save lives. I believe that with all my heart."

NHTSA's FULL STATEMENT:

NHTSA carefully considers the more than 40,000 consumer complaints it receives each year as well as other sources of information about potential safety risks. The agency takes appropriate action—including opening a safety defect investigation—when warranted by the data.

NHTSA is in contact with the manufacturers regarding their recalls of certain Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute vehicles for the potential risk of unintended acceleration due to a "sticky throttle." While the agency has not yet concluded its investigation of these vehicles, it expects to do so in the near future, pending its evaluation of documents submitted by the manufacturers. 

As always, NHTSA will continue to monitor the issue and will take necessary action as appropriate.

FORD MOTOR COMPANY STATEMENT ON SAIGE BLOOM CRASH:

We offer our deepest sympathies to the Bloom family for their tragic loss. We are in the middle of our investigation and have not reached any conclusions. We will work closely with NHTSA to determine the cause of the crash and will take appropriate action if warranted by the outcome of the investigation.

FORD MOTOR COMPANY STATEMENT ON PRIOR LAWSUITS AND NHTSA'S INVESTIGATION:

Ford is involved both in active litigation and an open NHTSA investigation into this issue.  Therefore, we are not providing additional information at this time We are always concerned when our customers are injured in our products, and we will continue to work with NHTSA on their investigation.

FORD MOTOR COMPANY STATEMENT ON OCTOBER 2005 SERVICE BULLETIN:

While we had some anecdotal knowledge from our dealers in 2005 that they had to replace speed control cables because of damage during the accelerator cable repairs, which led us to issue an updated dealer bulletin to explain the proper repair procedures, we had not identified that the damage they reported could potentially lead to a stuck throttle condition.  Ford hadn't noted an unusual number of reports of non-functioning speed control due to a bent or improperly positioned cable, and moreover a non-functioning speed control system doesn't represent a safety issue, therefore we thought the update to the recall instructions was sufficient to address the issue.

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