Here we go again. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has launched another investigation of hundreds of complaints about steering problems in certain Ford Motor Co. vehicles. Can another recall be far behind? With one proposed class action lawsuit already pending against Ford in California over the same steering issues, the car manufacturer might want to brace itself for another round of explaining its actions.
The NHTSA is investigating 508 consumer complaints alleging a loss of power steering assist in the 2010-12 Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ, and the 2010-11 Mercury Milan equipped with rack mounted Electric Power Assisted Steering (EPAS). Four of those complaints maintain the power steering failure resulted in a road accident. The investigation, announced by the NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation on Oct. 2, effects an estimated 938,000 vehicles.
Drivers reported seeing a power steering warning message when the failure happened, according to the announcement. Some drivers said the problem was corrected when they turned the car off and restarted it. But many drivers said the problem occurred again after restarting the car.
Loss of Control
The investigation announcement doesn’t provide much detail about what can happen after the power steering cuts out unexpectedly, but the lawsuit does.
In Philips v. Ford (No. 14-02989), filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Jose Division, on June 27, vehicle owners accuse Ford of failing to tell consumers that the EPAS system in certain Fusion and Focus models “is prone to premature failure during ordinary and foreseeable driving situations … leaving [the drivers] unable to control their vehicles.” The plaintiffs filed an amended complaint on Sept. 8.
Ford moved to dismiss on Oct. 24. A hearing on the motion is scheduled for February 12, 2015.
The complaint describes what happened when the owner of a 2010 Ford Fusion lost power steering while entering a freeway in 2012. When the power steering suddenly quit, the driver also lost traction control and the ability to brake, causing the car to swerve and hit the concrete barrier on the driver’s side of the ramp, according to the complaint. Both the driver and the passenger were injured in the crash.
It’s important to note that the power steering failure doesn’t mean that the driver has no way to control the car at all. When the EPAS system fails, the manual steering system takes over. However, “[t]he sudden shock of needing to immediately exert great effort to control the vehicle makes the Defective Vehicles extremely susceptible to accidents when EPAS fails.” It’s easy to see how a collision can occur, particularly if an elderly or teen driver is behind the wheel.
Little Help Alleged
Meanwhile, the complaint alleges, Ford has been less than helpful when car owners have sought to have the steering problem fixed. After hitting a curb when the power steering in her 2011 Ford Fusion failed in 2012, the car owner took the vehicle to a Ford dealer three times to have the problem fixed, the complaint says. But the dealer refused to work on the problem because the steering failure couldn’t be replicated, alleges the complaint.
To make matters worse, the complaint maintains Ford has known about the steering problem for four years but has continued to make, market and sell the vehicles. “Specifically, Ford has been aware since 2010, if not earlier, that the EPAS system it designed, manufactured, and installed in the Defective Vehicles is prone to sudden and premature failure, resulting in marked increases to steering effort and loss of driver control,” alleges the complaint.
The lawsuit identifies the following vehicles as having defective EPAS systems: the 2010-2014 Ford Fusion; 2010-2014 Ford Fusion Hybrid; 2013-2014 Ford Fusion Energi; 2012-2014 Ford Focus; and 2012-2014 Ford Focus Electric. “Notably, Ford has never recalled the 2010 or 2011 Ford Fusion—or any other model of Defective Vehicle—and never disclosed the problems to the customers, NHTSA, or the public,” the complaint states.
In its motion to dismiss, Ford argues the lawsuit isn’t a nationwide action because the plaintiffs only bought cars in six states— Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio. Therefore, the proposed class action complaint does not represent consumers in other states, says Ford.
Secondly, under the laws of those six states, the economic-loss rule bars the plaintiffs’ tort claims based solely on alleged damage to the vehicles themselves, Ford argues. The plaintiffs also failed to plead with the required particularity the necessary facts to support their fraud claims. Further, the plaintiffs do not plead facts sufficient to state claims for breach of express or implied warranty, Ford maintains.
Finally, the existence of an adequate legal remedy in the form of the claims for breach of express or implied warranty bars the plaintiffs from seeking equitable relief. “They may not be able to recover on those claims, but that does not make the legal remedy inadequate,” says Ford.
Meanwhile, a second proposed class action suit also bears watching. Two California car owners accuse another major car manufacturer of ignoring complaints about power steering defects.
Deadlines have been extended into 2015 on class action certification briefing in a lawsuit brought by Toyota vehicle owners in October 2012. Irene Corson and Susan M. Yacks say Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. and Toyota Motor Corp. have known about an electric power steering defect in 2009 and 2010 Corolla and Matrix models but failed to disclose the defect or recall the vehicles.
The plaintiffs in Corson v. Toyota (12-08499), pending in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, allege the power steering problem caused their vehicles “to wander or drift from center at highway speeds and/or suddenly veer to one direction during normal use.” Plaintiffs filed a third amended complaint on Aug. 5, 2013, alleging violations of the Unfair Competition Law, Business and Professions Code, Consumers Legal Remedies Act, Magnuson-Moss Act, as well as state statutory and common law claims for breach of express and implied warranty.
The plaintiffs seek a nationwide class of current and former owners and lessees of the Corolla and Matrix vehicles in question. Alternatively, they seek sub-classes involving vehicles purchased or leased in New York and Pennsylvania, according to the amended complaint.
It’s been a busy year for Ford in terms of power steering problems.
In May, Ford recalled 1.1 million sport utility vehicles in the U.S. and Canada over power steering issues. The recall reversed Ford’s refusal in June 2013 to recall 2011 Explorers for the same steering problem, The Wall Street Journal reported. The SUV recall targeted certain 2011-2013 Explorers with malfunctioning electrical connections and 2008-2011 Escape and Mariner models with faulty sensors, the WSJ said.