WASHINGTON, March 30, 2005 — -- Claire Duncan was driving her 2000 Ford Explorer when another vehicle veered into her lane. She lost control, and the SUV rolled five times. Duncan, 26, died of a fractured skull.
Scott Duncan, her husband, was sitting in the passenger seat. He survived.
"I don't feel like my wife needed to die," he said. "And I think there's other people that are out there that are dying that could be prevented."
The accident led to a trial that uncovered internal Ford Motor Co. documents raising questions about whether the company ignored safety recommendations from its own engineers.
Earlier this month, a jury in Jacksonville, Fla., ruled the SUV's roof was defective and ordered Ford to pay Scott Duncan $10.2 million for financial damages, pain and suffering.
Duncan's lawyers argued pillars supporting the vehicles' roof and seat belt caved in, allowing Claire Duncan's head to come out of the vehicle.
"We had to prove the Explorer roof was defective, and to do that we actually cut up the Explorer and showed the jury the pillars were hollow," said his attorney, Gary Pajcic.
Tests done for the lawsuit show the roof of a 2000 Explorer collapsing when the vehicle is dropped from a height of one foot. In the same test, when padding was added to the vehicle's pillars for additional strength, the roof crushing was noticeably reduced.
In a 1993 internal Ford memo, engineers recommended changes in the Explorer for "improving … performance in a roof crush."
Ford did make some changes, including the reinforcement of key support pillars in 1996. But attorneys for Duncan say Ford's own testing showed the Explorer roof was getting weaker, not stronger, over the years.
The government's roof crush test requires automakers to ensure the roof can withstand a force 1 ½ times the vehicle's weight.
Trial documents show the 1992 Explorer roof could withstand 1.75 times its weight. But the 1999 Explorer could support only 1.51 times its weight -- barely surpassing the government standard.