SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Customers want Ford Motors ordered to pay attorneys' fees to cover the costs of a class action they say forced the company to recall more than 70,000 vehicles last year.
Lead plaintiff Jean McDonald sued Ford in June 2013, claiming it concealed its knowledge of defective coolant pumps in certain hybrid models from 2005 to 2008.
McDonald claimed vehicles with the Motor Electronic Cooling System "contain defective coolant pumps that cause the vehicles to unexpectedly shut down," and that Ford knew of the defect since at least 2005 but failed to disclose it.
Ford issued a nationwide recall of the coolant pumps for 70,209 Ford Escapes and Mercury Mariners in September 2014.
During a Tuesday hearing, plaintiffs' attorney Tarek Zohdy said the lawsuit was a major factor in Ford's decision to issue the recall, and that the timeline shows it.
"Plaintiffs don't have to be the only reason there was a recall," Zohdy said. "They just have to be a significant reason."
Zohdy said Ford avoided issuing a recall until after the judge partly denied its motion to dismiss the plaintiffs' second amended complaint, in March 2014.
Ford attorney John M. Thomas denied that the lawsuit played a role in Ford's decision to recall the pumps. He said the recall came because Kenneth Lilly, with Ford's automotive safety office, found a coding error in his data reports, which revealed the rate of coolant pump problems was "four times higher than previously believed."
"They have no evidence that this lawsuit played any role whatsoever in Ford's decision to issue this recall," Thomas said. "Mr. Lilly testified he did not even know of this lawsuit at the time he put this recall into motion."
U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar allowed Ford to show video evidence of Lilly's deposition from June 2015 during the hearing, but stopped the video after a few minutes.
"I take your point," Tigar said, adding that he understands the defense intended to use the video to humanize a witness whose credibility the plaintiffs called into question.
During the deposition, Ford attorneys asked Lilly several questions about his methods of assessing the rate of customer complaints for various vehicle model parts and conditions.
"Unlike juries, I'm very attuned to leading questions," Tigar said before ending the brief, video-testimony portion of the hearing.
Thomas said the plaintiffs are not entitled to attorneys' fees because a lawsuit was not the only avenue for them to obtain relief in the form of a recall. He said they could have filed a complaint with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
But Zohdy said the NHTSA received numerous complaints about the defective pumps on its website, and that Ford knew of the problem for nearly 10 years without taking any action.
"This is a poster case where there was a necessity for private action in the court, as opposed to public action," Zohdy said.
He said Ford has presented no evidence to rebut his chronology of events: that a recall was not issued until 15 months after his clients filed suit, and six months after the judge denied Ford's motion to dismiss.
Ford claims the lawsuit contained no new information that would have triggered the recall.
Tigar asked: "The question before the court today is, 'Did that information have a catalyzing effect on Ford?'"
Tigar ended the hearing after about an hour and a half of debate.
After the hearing, Zohdy declined to comment on how much money his clients seek in attorneys' fees.
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