One or two vehicles catching fire not unusual‚ but almost 50 … it’s crazy’ – says ombud

“Ford must act — now!” said Motor Industry Ombud Johan van Vreden on Monday.

“This is a first for me in my 16 years as ombudsman‚” he said.

“One or two vehicles in the same model range catching fire is not unusual‚ but almost 50…it’s crazy‚ especially in a small market like ours.”

Regardless of the outcome of the investigation into the cause of the Ford Kuga fire in which Reshall Jimmy was killed in December 2015‚ Van Vreden said‚ the other 46 Kuga fires all appear to have started in the engine compartment‚ requiring Ford to take immediate “appropriate action” within the recall policies of Ford and the Consumer Protection Act.

“I hope that at today’s press conference they reveal very clearly what they propose to do.”

There are different forms of recall in the motor industry.

A service recall is actioned in the case of an issue which is not what the industry terms safety critical‚ and it’s carried out during a routine service‚ often without the owner’s knowledge.

But a safety recall‚ due to what the industry terms a “safety critical” issue such as dozens of vehicles catching alight — is clearly far more serious.

It is actioned voluntarily by the manufacturer or as a result of being forced to by an authority such as the National Consumer Commission (NCC).

The manufacturer undertakes the responsibility and total cost of fixing the problem‚ replacing the vehicle or buying it back‚ depending on the issue and the circumstances.

WHAT DOES THE LAW SAY?

“The Consumer Protection Act (CPA) is clear‚ in terms of Section 61 that there is strict liability for any damage or harm caused by a product which is unsafe when supplied or which has an inherent hazard or a defect‚” says CPA and product liability specialist attorney Janusz Luterek.

“This liability extends beyond replacement of the vehicle to any harm or damage caused and economic loss suffered by the owner‚ passengers‚ family or potentially even other members of the public or rescue services who are affected by it.

“These claims could be very large indeed and include loss of income in the case of injury and loss of support in the case of a death.

“A burning Kuga could also lead to a larger fire in a mall or in dense traffic causing untold harm and exposing Ford to huge liability.”

The CPA also provides for class action lawsuits‚ Luterek said.

Attorney Rod Montano‚ who represents the owners of most of the Kugas which have caught fire‚ said such a class action is indeed being planned.

On Monday morning‚ along with the siblings of Reshall Jimmy‚ he tried to hand over written complaints from the 46 Kuga fire victims at the offices of the NCC‚ but was denied access and ordered off the property by Commission spokesman Trevor Hattingh.

Hattingh told The Times it was simply a matter of them not having made an appointment.

The complainants are urging the NCC to recall the 1.6-litre Kuga‚ as a precursor to lodging a civil claim against the company as a class action.

Luterek said there may also be both criminal and civil liability for the directors and other officers of Ford South Africa under the Companies Act of 2013‚ “especially where they have intentionally or negligently failed to recall a vehicle which has been shown to be a hazard and in which at least one person has already died”.

“What is more alarming is the disdain Ford South Africa has for South Africans — whereas Ford in the USA recalled the Ford Escape (Kuga in South Africa) due to fire risk after 13 fires with no injuries‚ it fails to do the same here in the face of 45 fires and one death.”

The Ford Pinto scandal

For many‚ the burning Ford Kuga issue brings to mind a particularly scandalous chapter of Ford’s history — that of the Ford Pinto in the late 70s.

Due to the poor design of the fuel tank‚ the car — the biggest selling sub-compact car in the US at the time — tended to burst into flames when crashed into from behind.

It emerged in civil trials that Ford waited eight years to re-design the fuel tank because its internal “cost-benefit analysis” — which placed a dollar value on human life — said it wasn’t profitable to make the changes sooner.

Twenty-seven people died in Pinto fires; among them three teenagers. In August 1978‚ sisters Judy (18) and Lynn Ulrich (16) and their cousin Donna Ulrich (18) were travelling on a highway in Indiana when their Ford Pinto was struck from behind by a van. The Pinto’s petrol tank ruptured and all three were burnt to death.

Times reader Joy Donovan said the Ford Pinto story was part of her business ethics class at UCT.

“Most notable was that Ford actually worked out the cost of a human life and found that it was cheaper to settle each claim as it happened‚ rather than institute a mass recall‚” she said.

In September 1978 — a month after the Ulrich teenagers died in a Pinto fire‚ Ford finally issued a recall for 1.5 million 1971-76 Pinto sedans and Runabouts‚ plus all similar 1975-76 Mercury Bobcats‚ for a safety repair.

While Ford was acquitted of criminal charges‚ it lost several million dollars and gained a reputation for manufacturing “the barbecue that seats four”.

In his book Talking Straight‚ former Ford exec Lee Iacocca wrote: “Clamming up is what we did at Ford in the late ‘70s when we were bombarded with suits over the Pinto‚ which was involved in a lot of gas tank fires.

“The suits might have bankrupted the company‚ so we kept our mouths shut for fear of saying anything that just one jury might have construed as an admission of guilt.

“Winning in court was our top priority; nothing else mattered. “And of course‚ our silence added to all the suspicions people had about us and the car.”

Tiso Black Star Group Digital/The Times

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