By Hannah Lutz, Crain News Service
DETROIT (Nov. 4, 2014) — Ford Motor Co. is asking a federal court in California to dismiss a lawsuit accusing the auto maker of marketing defective electric power-assisted steering systems on some Fusions and Focuses.
Ford's motion, issued Oct. 24, argues that plaintiffs have failed to prove that company documents and marketing materials falsely advertised the function of the steering systems, or that any alleged defects are systemic.
On June 27, six plaintiffs filed the suit in U.S. District Court in San Jose, Calif., accusing Ford of designing, manufacturing, distributing, marketing and selling 2010-14 Fusions and 2012-13 Focuses with the defective electric power-assisted steering systems, court documents said.
Ford advertised its power-assist steering as “an innovative and positive contributor” for vehicle safety, documents said. The power assist's pull-drift compensation was marketed to detect road conditions and adjust the steering system to help drivers compensate for pulling and drifting.
The complaint accused Ford of advertising steering that “feels just right” and “helps keep you firmly planted and in control.” But the car maker failed to disclose that the power-assisted steering in affected vehicles is likely to fail “during ordinary and foreseeable driving situations,” court documents said.
Drivers that encountered the defect would have to increase steering effort and were suddenly unable to turn the vehicles, according to the court documents.
The complaint accused Ford of knowing about the glitch since 2010 but hiding it from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and customers.
If power-assisted steering problems had been highlighted, the plaintiffs wouldn't have bought their vehicles, the complaint said.
The auto maker asked the court to dismiss the case, claiming that the plaintiffs did not display proof of false advertisements. Ford has not issued a recall about the alleged problem.
In its motion, Ford said that “though in broad scope and long words, the complaint is short on facts, and should be dismissed for many reasons.”
The court has scheduled a case management conference on the motion for Feb. 12. In such a conference, both sides meet with the judge to discuss how to handle the case.
“Plaintiffs have alleged almost no specific facts about their own claims, instead choosing to fill pages by (for example) quoting other consumers' complaints, and trying to depict the possibility of having to steer a relatively small car manually as an unreasonably dangerous hazard,” Ford said in the motion.
One of the plaintiffs contacted Ford in late 2013 when he began having problems with the steering system in his Fusion. Nothing was done after his first complaint, but when he complained a second time, Ford told him that the powertrain warranty did not cover power steering problems. It would cost about $2,000 to fix his vehicle, and Ford offered to pay half, court documents said.
Ford said that it could not be liable for failing to disclose a safety hazard that it doesn't consider systemic.
“Plaintiffs point to various consumer complaints, but that is not enough to demonstrate that a manufacturer knew there was a systemic defect in a range of products, as plaintiffs allege,” Ford said in the motion.
The auto maker said that at most, the complaint acknowledged that some consumers were upset with the steering issues.
“The mere fact that someone else has complained about a problem does not mean there is a systemic defect in every product,” the motion said. “Nor do dozens or even hundreds of complaints establish that fact, at least where, as here, there are literally millions of those products in use.”
None of the plaintiffs claims to have been injured as a result of the alleged defect. The only loss is economic, based on the claim that the cars are not worth what the plaintiffs paid for them, the motion said .
Adam Levitt, a partner at Grant & Eisenhofer in Chicago, who is representing the plaintiffs, said that he “respectfully disagrees” with Ford's motion and plans to oppose it.
“We believe this is a serious case with a serious problem that puts millions of people at safety risk,” Levitt said.
A spokeswoman from Ford said the auto maker could not comment on pending litigation.
Three of Ford's lawyers did not return calls and emails asking for comment. The fourth declined to comment.
This report appeared on the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.