An Ohio federal jury has cleared Ford Motor Co. from a suit alleging that a defect in the cruise control systems of a 2001 Expedition caused a house fire that killed a mother and her two children, finding that while there was a defect in the vehicle, it was not the cause of the fire.
The jury verdict ends a suit by Peter Romans that had been delayed for more than a year after Romans was arrested and charged with murder and arson in connection with the deaths of his wife and their two children.
Romans filed the suit in January 2016, alleging that Ford had been aware that a defect in the speed control deactivation switches in Ford vehicles made them prone to underhood fires but that the automaker made only lackluster, half-hearted attempts at recalling the vehicles.
Ford knew as early as June 1999 the defect allowed flammable brake fluid to migrate into the electrical systems and cause a fire, but Ford continued to use the same systems despite being aware of safer alternatives in future vehicles. A 2001 Expedition owned by Romans’ wife had the system defect.
On April 5, 2008, Romans alleged that the Expedition was sitting with its ignition off in their garage while they slept, when a fire started in the vehicle, spreading to the garage and the home. Romans was able to escape the blaze, but his family did not and died of their injuries.
The suit was initially set for trial in October 2019, but Romans moved in July of that year to stay the case, as he had been arrested and charged with arson and aggravated murder in the deaths of his wife and children. The state was pursuing the death penalty and his prosecution would “unavoidably” impact the civil case.
U.S. District Judge Michael H. Watson reopened the case in October 2020, after the state court had acquitted Romans of all charges, and proceeded to trial starting last month. The jury reached its verdict, finding that the 2001 Ford Expedition was defective in design but that the defect was not the cause of Romans’ injuries and damages.