One year after an investigation by KSHB Scripps affiliate ABC15, Ford Motor Company has agreed to pay the federal government a $17.35 million civil penalty to settle allegations that they didn't issue the recall of hundreds of thousands of Ford Escapes in a timely manner.
It's the maximum penalty the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) can impose.
In the June 28th agreement, released today, Ford agreed to pay the fine to resolve claims that the automaker knew about the defect and didn't alert customers or the government.
NHTSA writes that it had "a potential claim that Ford violated the Safety Act, including regulations thereunder, by not timely notifying NHTSA and the owners, purchasers and dealers of the safety defect."
Ford denied those allegations, but agreed to pay the fine. In a statement, Ford said:
"We are absolutely committed to addressing potential vehicle issues and responding quickly for our customers. We take the safety of our customers seriously and continuously evaluate our processes for improvements. While we are confident in our current processes for quickly identifying and addressing potential vehicle issues, Ford agreed to this settlement to avoid a lengthy dispute with the government."
After the ABC15 Investigators' reporting about the death of 17 year-old Saige Bloom in Payson last summer, NHTSA opened an investigation into the safety defect and recall involving stuck throttles in 2001-2004 model year Ford Escapes and 2001-2008 Mazda Tributes, its sister SUV.
Less than two weeks later, Ford and Mazda announced a major recall of more than 700,000 of the SUVs equipped with 3.0L V6 engines and speed control for potential stuck throttles.
But, some auto safety experts thought the recall came too late and pushed NHTSA to fine Ford for not recalling the SUVs years earlier.
"I think Ford has known about this since 2005," said former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook last summer. "NHTSA should not let them get away with this."
"Saige Bloom died in January 2012 because there wasn't a recall of the 2001 to 2004 Escapes," said auto safety expert Clarence Ditlow with the Center for Auto Safety in Washington. "There's simply no way around that fact," he said.
The ABC15 Investigators found the same defect caused accidents and deaths around the country dating back to 2005 – all of them involving Escapes with damaged speed control cables, stuck under the engine covers, causing the throttle to stick open and leaving the SUVs speeding out of control.
In 2005, Ford issued a warning to its dealers describing the defect. But, they did not warn owners of the affected SUVs.
"If they discover a defect, they have to report it very expeditiously to the agency," Claybrook said, "and, if they don't, then they're subject to civil penalties."
Now, Ditlow said he's happy that the government has held Ford accountable.
In a statement, NHTSA said:
"The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is deeply committed to ensuring the highest standards of safety on our roadways. It is critical to the safety of the driving public that manufacturers address automotive safety issues quickly and in a forthright manner. As government regulators, it is our job to ensure that manufacturers are held accountable to address safety issues promptly and responsively. Recalls are a serious safety matter and NHTSA urges consumers who have vehicles that are included in the safety recall to have their vehicles serviced promptly."