DETROIT, July 3 (UPI) -- Ford Motor Co. Wednesday faced a class action suit filed by a group of county officials in Texas aimed at forcing the No. 2 automaker to make safety improvements to 25,000 Crown Victoria police cruisers in the state.
The suit was filed by Nueces County, which owns 106 of the cruisers, on behalf of all cities and counties in Texas. It is the latest issue in a growing controversy over the vehicles, which are used by police departments across the country. The suit accuses Ford of hiding a safety defect that makes the vehicles prone to catch fire in high-speed rear-end collisions.
A similar lawsuit is pending in New Jersey.
Ford last week appointed two panels to study the Crown Victoria's fuel tank design and whether police should change their practices to improve safety following a visit by Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano. The meeting was prompted by the June 12 death of a Chandler, Ariz., police officer.
Napolitano has criticized Ford for not crash-testing police cruisers at speeds higher than 50 mph, not crash-testing the cars following suggested modifications and allegedly misrepresenting crash-test statistics and other statistics in presentations to the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
Two other Arizona police officers were killed in post-collision fires involving Crown Victorias. Ford settled lawsuits filed by their families in May. Details of the settlements were not disclosed.
The Associated Highway Patrolmen of Arizona has called for a moratorium on the purchase of Crown Victorias until the car has been re-engineered.
Attorney David Perry of Corpus Christi, Texas, said setting up the committees is not enough.
"We need a commitment to fix the problem," Perry said.
"As a result of this class action, we believe Ford can no longer ignore cries of the widows and children of police officers killed in survivable collisions in which inadequately protected fuel tanks ruptured and exploded."
Critics say it was a mistake to put the Crown Victoria's gas tank behind the rear axle where it is vulnerable to rupture in a high-speed crash. Perry said internal Ford documents indicate the Crown Victoria is 140 percent more vulnerable to rear-end collision fire deaths than comparable General Motors vehicles. Ford maintains, however, gas tank fires are extremely rare and that no fuel systems could be expected to survive such violent, high-speed impacts.
"We believe we have a very safe vehicle," Ford spokeswoman Sara Tatchio has said.
Two repairs have been recommended but Ford has declined to pay for any on vehicles no longer covered by a 30,000-mile limited warranty. The Texas suit demands Ford pay for repairs on all affected vehicles. Perry said, however, the modifications are "helpful" but not "adequate."
Approximately 400,000 Crown Victoria Police Interceptors are on the road across the country. According to Perry, at least 18 police officers have either been killed or severely burned in rear-end collisions involving the vehicles.
"Ford admits there have been more fire deaths in the Ford Crown Victoria than in the Ford Pinto before it was recalled," Perry says on his Web site, crownvictoriasafetyalert.com.