Judge Pares Down Class Action Over Ford Emissions Defect

DETROIT (CN) – A federal judge ruled Tuesday that Ford must face a class-action claim that it was aware of defects in its evaporative emissions-control systems that caused vehicles to stall while in motion, but dismissed other claims against the auto giant.

Ford moved to dismiss the federal class action filed against by lead plaintiff Jon Rivera, who alleges the company knowingly sold him a defective 2013 Ford Focus SE.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith dismissed Rivera’s claims of breach of express warranty, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, unjust enrichment and fraud.

However, the judge allowed his claim for violation of the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, or FDUTPA, to proceed.

Rivera purchased the vehicle, brand new, from a Ford dealer in Florida in 2013 and says he began to experience problems approximately three and a half years later.

“Rivera began experiencing erratic idling in his vehicle. This issue worsened; in one incident, the vehicle began to stall while traveling 50 miles per hour. Rivera also noticed that the vehicle’s fuel gauge was erratic, with fuel levels changing from a quarter tank full to three-quarters full in an instant,” the ruling states.

He claims he took the car to a Ford technician who told him he needed to replace the car’s fuel vapor valve, fuel tank and fuel pump, with a repair quote of more than $1,900.

The dealership allegedly told Rivera that it was aware of the problem with the Ford Focus’ evaporative emissions-control system, or EVAP, but that any repairs would not be covered under the factory warranty.

The EVAP system is designed specifically to limit fuel emissions produced in the fuel tank from being released into the atmosphere. Vapors emitted from a vehicle’s fuel tank are sent to a canister containing charcoal that absorbs the fuel for storage purposes. When the car is running, those fuel vapors are funneled to the engine to be purged and therefore prevented from being released into the atmosphere.

The car’s purge valve is at the center of the dispute. The valve regulates how much fuel vapor enters the engine by opening or closing, controlled by an electronically operated solenoid. The solenoid, or cylindrical wire coil, opens the purge valve when the vehicle is running and completely warmed up but shuts when the engine is off, meaning no fuel vapors should penetrate the engine.

“When the purge valve becomes stuck in the open position, like with Rivera’s and the rest of the putative class members’ vehicles, suction is created when the vehicle’s engine is running,” according to Judge Goldsmith’s opinion. “As a result, in addition to fuel vapors, raw fuel is sucked through the EVAP canister, through the purge valve, and directly into the engine. This raw fuel causes the engines in the class vehicles to abruptly hesitate and stall while driving.”

Rivera filed the class-action lawsuit on behalf of himself and others in a proposed class of owners of 2012 to 2015 Ford Focus vehicles allegedly sold with the defective systems.

He says that, like him, other members have reported loss of engine power when traveling over 45 miles per hour. He argues Ford technicians have said the defective valve has also caused fuel tanks to collapse due to raw fuel leaving the tank rapidly.

Judge Goldsmith agreed with Rivera’s claim that Ford’s alleged omission about the defective purge valve misled customers, finding he has sufficiently pleaded a claim under the FDUTPA.

“In his complaint, Rivera alleges that Ford knew of the defect through a combination of records of consumer complaints, dealership repair records, [National Highway Safety and Traffic Safety Administration] records, warranty and postwarranty claims, and [Technical Service Bulletins]. Courts have held that a manufacturer’s knowledge of a latent defect may be inferred when such complaints and records exist,” Goldsmith wrote in the 19-page ruling.

But the judge also found that Rivera’s warranty claim fails because the terms of Ford’s express warranty were not “substantively unconscionable.”

“Rivera’s claim of procedural unconscionability rests on whether Ford had presale

knowledge of the defective purge valve,” Goldsmith said. “Even assuming presale knowledge was sufficiently pleaded, such knowledge, standing alone, is insufficient to establish procedural unconscionability.”

Judge Goldsmith also dismissed Rivera’s unjust enrichment claim because it was based on the express warranty.

In addition, “The implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing did not apply to override the terms of the warranty to require Ford to make repairs to Rivera’s vehicle in October 2016, three years and five months after he purchased his vehicle,” he wrote.

Goldsmith dismissed Rivera’s fraud claims as well.

“Rivera does not make any allegations that Ford disclosed certain facts regarding the EVAP system at any time before, during, or after the sale. As a result, Ford only had a duty to disclose the defect with the EVAP system if it was a fiduciary or in another relationship of trust or confidence with Rivera,” the judge wrote. “Because there was no duty to disclose, Rivera has not pleaded a claim of fraud under Florida law.”

Leaving Rivera’s FDUTPA claim against the auto giant intact, Goldsmith noted that Rivera sufficiently pleaded Ford’s knowledge of the defective EVAP system at the time of sale.

Ford did not immediately respond Wednesday to an email request for comment on the ruling.

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