In a ruling that could deal a blow to the Ford Motor Co., a California judge largely agreed late Tuesday with complaints that Ford knowingly installed defective ignition mechanisms in nearly 2 million vehicles produced from 1983 to 1995.
In a preliminary decision, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Michael E. Ballachey said he intended to issue orders "compelling recall and repair" of the vehicles.
The part in question is an ignition module that regulates current to the spark plugs. In 300 models, the module was mounted on the distributor near the engine block, where it was exposed to high temperatures.
Car buyers' lawyers said Ford had been warned by an engineer that high temperatures would cause the device to fail and stall the engine. Consumer advocates estimated that it would cost Ford $70 million to $250 million to comply.
The final decision, which will be discussed at a hearing at the Alameda County Court on Sept. 28, could be more damaging to Ford's reputation than its finances, consumer advocates said. In the wake of the Firestone tire recall, the company is working diligently to maintain public trust in its products.
"This is bad news at a bad time for the Ford Motor Co.," said Clarence M. Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington. The company, he noted, is broadcasting television ads that say, "Trust us, we put safety first." Then, Ditlow said, "This decision says, 'We put profits first.' "
The California plaintiffs brought their case against Ford in February 1996. It covers about 1.8 million Ford vehicles registered in the state.
In the case, plaintiffs' lawyers produced documents intended to show that Ford withheld information from federal regulators about an engineering defect that can cause the vehicles to stall at high speeds.
In his 10-page preliminary ruling, Ballachey was sharply critical of the way Ford dealt with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Ford's strategy, clearly established by the credible evidence was 'If you don't ask the right question, we don't have to answer with what common sense tells us you want to know,' " he wrote.
The opening sentence of the next paragraph in the tentative decision reads, "Ford withheld responsive information from NHTSA that it was obligated to divulge."
Susan Krusel, a Ford spokeswoman, responded, "The real-world data and engineering analysis is in direct conflict with the court's ruling."
"These modules performed as well as any alternative design at the time," she added. "In 18 years, there has never been any evidence proving that any accident or injury" had ever been caused by one of the modules.
"There is simply nothing to fix," Krusel said. "We expect this ruling will be reversed on appeal."
Jeffrey L. Fazio, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, called the decision "a complete vindication of the claims we have made against Ford."
Officials at the traffic safety agency could not be reached for comment.
The judge's ruling addresses violations of two California statutes: the Consumers' Legal Remedies Act and the Unfair Competition Law.
Last November, a mistrial was declared in the first phase of the case, in which jurors were asked to determine whether Ford was liable for compensatory and punitive damages.
Jurors were deadlocked 7-5 and 8-4 on two key questions of liability. Nine votes were needed for a verdict in the civil cases.
In that trial, Ford denied any defects, saying its vehicles were no more prone to stalling than any others and posed no safety hazard.
In March, Ford paid a record $425,000 fine for delays or omissions in providing information to the traffic safety agency about problems with ignition switches that could cause fires. About 25 million Ford vehicles built from 1983 to 1992 had such switches.
Plaintiffs' groups in five other states have filed class-action lawsuits against Ford relating to the ignition modules, which are different from the switches. Those cases have been delayed pending the outcome of the California case.