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Smith v. Ford Motor Co.

In this case, Ford discovered that the ignition locks in its Focus model vehicles were failing at a staggeringly high rate. Ford made manufacturing and design changes to the ignition locks so that they would stop failing within the 3-year warranty period, thereby saving Ford a substantial amount of money in warranty repair costs. But the changes did not cure the defect, and many Focus buyers had the ignition locks in their vehicles malfunction shortly after the warranty period expired. These buyers then had to pay hundreds of dollars in repair costs, just to replace a part that is normally expected to last the lifetime of the vehicle. Two consumers filed suit against Ford, alleging that Ford violated several California consumer protection laws.

At the core of the case was the question whether California law permits manufacturers to conceal a product defect from consumers so long as the defect does not pose a safety risk. The federal district court interpreted California law to allow manufacturers to conceal such defects, on the theory that non-safety-related defects — of which Ford’s ignition-lock defect was determined to be one — cause consumers “mere” economic loss. The consumers appealed.

On appeal, Public Citizen filed an amicus brief in the Ninth Circuit requesting that the court certify the question to the California Supreme Court. The brief argued that certification was necessary because the appeal raised an unsettled and important question of state law, and because that question implicates policy considerations that affect consumer protections afforded by California law. The Ninth Circuit did not certify the question to the California Supreme Court and affirmed the district court’s decision