Ford Ducks Action Over Steering Problems

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) – A federal judge has tossed a class action accusing Ford of building cars with faulty electric steering systems that endangered drivers, but the dismissal is likely a step toward appeal.

U.S. District Court Judge Lucy Koh granted Ford’s motion for summary judgment in a class action that claimed faulty power steering systems in the Focus and Fusion cars caused economic harm to it people who rented or bought the cars in between 2010 and 2014.

“Plaintiffs have conceded that they have no admissible evidence to prove damages,” wrote in the 21-page order filed Feb. 16. “Additionally, because damages are an essential element of each of plaintiffs’ claims, plaintiffs also concede that the damages issue alone is sufficient to justify granting the motion for summary judgment in its entirety.”

The admissible part is key, as Koh said she believes the plaintiffs are conceding they don’t have a damages case in order to be able to appeal the motion for summary judgement to the Ninth Circuit.

“It is clear that plaintiffs are most concerned with class claims in their third amended complaint,” Koh wrote in the ruling. “After the motion for class certification was denied, plaintiffs made no attempt to defend the claims of any of the individual plaintiffs.”

In other words, Koh found the plaintiffs demonstrated they did not want to proceed by defending the claims individually, but are instead preparing an appeal that will focus on Koh’s rationale for denying class certification.

“Plaintiffs evidently would prefer to appeal the court’s grant of summary judgment rather than either file a motion for Rule 23(f) review of the class certification order or litigate plaintiffs’ individual claims,” Koh wrote in the order.

Adam Levitt, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

The dispute arises from a lawsuit filed in 2014 by William Philips, who said Ford concealed defects in its Electronic Power-Assisted Steering (EPAS) system on his used 2011 Ford Fusion to avoid costly repairs. He sought to represent a class of Californians who bought or leased 2010-2014 Fusions, and 2012-2014 Focuses.

But Koh denied class certification last year, finding the damages assessment method used by plaintiffs was insufficient and that individual issues with the steering system made commonality unlikely.

As often is the case in civil litigation, refusal to certify a class reduces the incentive for the plaintiffs to pursue a case.

Ford’s steering system includes a power steering control motor, electronic control unit, torque sensor and steering wheel position sensor, but Philips said it has a defect that “renders the system prone to sudden and premature failure.”

Philips said that after complaining repeatedly to Ford about the problem, the company told him it would cost $2,000 to fix and offered to pay only half of it. He did not repair it then, in 2013, but Ford recalled his car in July 2015 and fixed the problem.

When the system fails, drivers “experience significantly increased steering effort and an increased risk of losing control” when their cars suddenly switch to manual steering, according to the complaint.

Philips and the class said their personal experiences, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation of the steering system in the Ford Explorer, and similar complaints by other California drivers amply demonstrated their claims.

Ford recalled 422,131 defective cars in 2015 and has repaired about 51 percent of them, including the steering system in 8,000 cars as of December 2015. In court filings Ford has said the recall and subsequent fixes should render the claims moot.

Koh did not rule on any other components of Ford’s motion for summary judgment, saying the plaintiffs’ concession that there was no admissible evidence of damages was sufficient to render everything else moot.