Warning: explicit post-crash fire photos of a teenager who burned alive in a defective Ford Crown Victoria are at the end of this case study. The facts in this case study are true. The names have been changed to protect the privacy of the survivor and her family.
On September 13, 2014 Jane Smith, age 45, was stopped for traffic in her 1998 Ford Mercury Grand Marquis, accompanied by her 16 year-old granddaughter Mary Smith in the front-passenger seat. They were returning home from a baby shower. Both were seat belted.
The Ford was rear-ended by a 2014 Dodge Caravan Van causing a fuel fed fire that asphyxiated Mary Smith. Mrs. Smith suffered 50-60% full body burns.
Neither occupant suffered any orthopedic injuries. This was a survivable rear-end collision, but for the defective fuel system.
Development of the Crown Victoria police car and taxicab
In 1978 Ford introduced a “new” family of vehicles with long-lasting design features, including body-on-frame construction, live rear axle suspension and vertical behind the axle fuel tank, and called it the Panther platform.
The highly durable body-on-frame construction (which allows easier repair after minor collisions), and its relatively simple design eventually made the Panther appealing as fleet vehicles, including police cars and taxicabs.
The first cars to use the Panther platform were the Mercury Grand Marquis and the Ford LTD sold to the general public.
Gas Tank Defect Identified in 2001
On October 29, 2001, Ford issued Technical Service Bulletin 01.21.14 entitled “Parts and Procedure to Reduce the Potential of Fuel Tank Punctures during rare and Extremely High-Speed Rear Impacts” for the 1992-2001 Ford Crown Victorias, Lincoln Town Cars and the Mercury Grand Marquises, all of which share the same fuel system and rear suspension features in both police and civilian versions. The modification was designed to reduce rear-end fuel tank punctures.
Ford identified a tab on the side of the two rear stabilizer bar axle attachment “U” brackets as the cause of punctures and that it had to be removed. The following photo shows the rear axle and the stabilizing bar held by the two brackets.
The photo below provides a close up of the bracket that punctured the Smith’s gas tank in this crash.
The tab is seen to the right of the yellow tape. It is 4 mm high and 6 mm wide or 1/6th by 1/4th inches.
The fix for this defective was simple according to Ford’s Technical Service Bulletin: “On 1992-2001 vehicles use a die grinder or electric grinder with suitable carbide or grinding wheel to remove . . . the tab. The U brackets do not need to be removed from the vehicle. The tab should be ground until it is flush with the contour of the flange.”
That was an easy and inexpensive correction for all defective Crown Victorias and Mercury Marquises until September 27, 2002.
Ford Gas Tank Shield Safety Kit For Police Cars Never Offered to the Public
In 2002, Ford announced that it was making available a new gas tank shield safety kit for the police version of the Crown Victoria. Ford called it an “upgrade.”
The shield safety kit was designed to cover those components of the axle that Ford knew caused gas tank punctures in rear-end collisions, including the tab and the left shock mounting bracket that cause two punctures and the ensuing fire.
Below are the plastic covers that shield the “U” bracket and the left shock-mounting bracket to prevent punctures.
Shield safety kits were provided free of charge by Ford for all police Crown Victorias. Parts were made available in late October 2002 thru Ford dealerships.
Although fire is one of the severest threats to survival after a collision, the upgrade kits were not made available to all owners of Crown Victorias, Lincoln Town Cars or Mercury Marquises and there was no official announcement by Ford warning owners of this hazard and the inexpensive fix. Ford made this engineering and management decision after it had identified a defect and both developed and offered a robust fix. Ford knew that it was only a matter of time before there would be gas infernos injuring and killing innocent people.
NHTSA Refused to Mandate Public Protection
On October 3, 2002, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration’s Office of Defect Investigation closed its investigation of rear gas tank fires for the Ford Panther without taking any action to 1) mandate that the grinding of the tab on the “U” bracket as recommended by Ford on all Crown Victorias and Mercury Grand Marquises or 2) requiring Ford to make the plastic safety kit available to the public.
The reasons for no action given by NHTSA was that it had concluded that the crash energy levels causing fuel tank failures in the police vehicles were significantly greater than the 30 mph rear impact test required by federal motor vehicle safety tests for all vehicles.
NHTSA also reported in its press release that it had reviewed Ford’s announcement to provide an upgrade kit for Crown Victoria police vehicles at no cost and said: “While NHTSA believes that these actions can be expected to reduce the likelihood of post rear crash fires in Crown Victoria police vehicles, they were not a factor in NHTSA’s decision to close this investigation.”
In essence according to NHTSA there was nothing to fix and the car was safe for the public. NHTSA had no inkling what was in the offing.
NO TANK FAILURES AT 100 MPH FORD CRASH TESTS IN 2004
Eighteen months later there was solid, substantial evidence supporting the re-opening of this investigation and good reason to both offer the safety shield kits to the public and issue a warning to consumers.
It happened on March 2, 2004. On that day Ford conducted a 100 mph test of its gas tank safety shield that proved that not only did it work, but also that it worked exceptionally well in protecting the gas tank.
When rear-ended by a full size 1992 Crown Victoria, the gas tank of the targeted 1996 police Crown Victoria with a fuel tank safety shield kit performed perfectly. The tank only leaked 16 millileters of fuel. That is a drop more than a tablespoon. And in the second test there was a small, but slow rate of leakage documented over many minutes.
The intrusion of the bumper and trunk into the gas tank in the 100 mph tests was significant.
Even with equally weighted vehicles in the 100 mph successful test, the crush to the targeted Crown Victoria is much greater than the crush to the Smith’ Marquis and there was no loss of fuel from the a torn filler neck in Smith as occurred in Ford’s second 100 mph crash. The conclusion is inescapable. Here are Ford’s crash test photos.
Compare the greater crush at 100 mph to the crush suffered by the Smith’s car.
As of March 2004, the 100 mph hour crash validated the safety shield safety kit as a significant improvement in the fuel safety system of the Crown Victorias, Town Cars and Mercury Marquises.
The legal duty to announce to the public the availability of the safety shield kit that first arose in 2002 was made all the more significant by validation testing in 2004.
In California, there is a recognized legal duty to warn which does not end at the time of sale or distribution. “A manufacturer’s duty to warn is a continuous duty which lasts as long as the product is in use.” Valentine v. Baxter Healthcare Corp. (1999) 68 Cal.App.4th 1467 at 1482.
Ford’s warranty, service and parts records confirm that California cars last longer than those driven in the snow, ice, and salt of the eastern, central and high western states.
California’s Department of Motor Vehicles readily could be called upon to provide the addresses for all VINs in the state. The cost of a warning to the California fleet was nominal.
September 13, 2014
Joffrey Scaerou (real name) a French tourist, age 26, on the way to Yosemite on a Saturday afternoon drove his 2014 Dodge Caravan into the rear-end of the Smith 1998 Mercury Marquis at freeway speed.
Mr. Scaerou did not suffer any injuries. The caravan performed well in this 60 mph crash confirmed by the Electronic Data Recorder.
The tire marks in the photo show the path of the Smith’s Marquis after it was hit.
This was a survivable collision but for the unprotected gas tank in the Smith’s car. Sixteen year-old Mary Smith died of asphyxiation due to lack of oxygen consumed by the fire. On autopsy no orthopedic injuries were found.
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