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Kane lawsuit: Defect in Ford’s cruise control burned down Aurora home

Attorney Robert Mottspeaks his office Monday about case Guadalupe Mendez (right) who lost her home when her neighbor's Ford pickup

Attorney Robert Motta speaks in his office Monday about the case of Guadalupe Mendez (right), who lost her home when her neighbor's Ford pickup truck caught fire. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 18, 2011 11:49AM



Guadalupe Mendez didn’t realize something was wrong until her neighbor used a shoe to break the window. A few minutes earlier, around 2:30 a.m. Sept. 12, 2006, Mendez thought she’d heard something breaking but went back to sleep.

It turns out the noise was her neighbor’s truck starting on fire. Since the truck was parked within a few feet of Mendez’s Aurora trailer home — where her two sons and three friends were sleeping — it also was about to catch fire. Another neighbor banged on the door, then broke a window to get their attention.

Mendez ran through the small house, waking everyone up, as neighbors hopelessly tossed buckets of water on the home. Once outside, Mendez and her barefoot sons watched the house she’d bought four years earlier being eaten by fire.

“I felt left on the street, alone with my kids,” Mendez said this week through an interpreter. “There was nothing I could do.”

She had almost paid off the trailer home. She was ready to start saving to send her sons, then 9 and 13, to college. Instead, all she was left with was a car and the clothes she was wearing.

At the time, she didn’t know for sure that the neighbor’s truck — also gutted — had started the fire. The green Ford F-150 pickup had been parked next to her house since 9:30 the night before.

But according to a lawsuit filed recently in Kane County, a flaw in the switch for the truck’s cruise control system might have started the blaze.

Bob Motta, the Aurora lawyer representing Mendez in a lawsuit against Ford, says the automaker was aware of the problem.

“They knew it was dangerous, but they kept it out there forever,” Motta said. “They just kept putting the same part into the stream of commerce even though they knew it’s defective.”

Marcey Evans, corporate news manager for Ford Motor Co., declined to comment on the case.

“Because this is a recently filed case, we have not yet had an opportunity to look into the claims,” Evans said by email. “We will conduct an investigation into the claims and after that, we will be in a better position to comment more specifically on the case.”

Multiple fires, suits

The Kane County lawsuit is not the first to target Ford on cruise control problems. According to SwitchFires.com, similar lawsuits have been filed in Texas, San Francisco and Detroit. Motta said he modeled Mendez’s suit after some of that previous litigation.

The Kane County suit says the fire is linked to a defect in the cruise control on some Ford vehicles. The system is designed so that there is electrical current running to the cruise control switch at all times, even when the vehicle is turned off, the suit says. The suit claims the cruise control system needs only one-half amp of power but continually receives 15 amps of power, causing it to overheat and start fires in cars that have been parked.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, approximately 17.5 million Ford vehicles have been recalled since 1999 for issues related to the faulty cruise control system. According to SwitchFires.com, the faulty cruise control system has been linked to 550 fires across the country. (The site was built by a law firm that has been representing people injured in alleged cruise control fires.)

Despite notification efforts, the NHTSA estimated that there may be several million vehicles still on the road with the defect. The NHTSA advised Ford owners to watch for potential warning signs of an imminent fire, which include a cruise control system that stops working; brake lights that stop working; low brake fluid; ABS and brake warning lights illuminated; or an inability to get the transmission out of “Park.”

Motta did not sue Ford initially. He originally filed suit against Mendez’s neighbor, the man who owned the Ford truck. But that suit proved problematic because Motta could not prove whether the neighbor was served with the recall notice and ignored it, or ever received the notice at all. Motta dropped the suit against that man. The attorney said he expected the truck owner to bring Ford into the suit, but when he didn’t, Motta sued Ford and Texas Instruments — the company that manufactured the switch.

(Motta is also suing the dealership that sold the car and the trailer park. Motta says the trailer park’s small lots force people to park too close to homes.)

The suit seeks in excess of $50,000, according to court records.

“We’re not trying to make her a millionaire — we’re just trying to get her back to where she was,” he said.

Lost everything

The trailer on Hill Avenue was never luxurious, but Mendez was proud to call it home. Her sons liked living there and had a lot of friends nearby. Mendez owed about $16,000 on the unit at the time of the fire.

She said she had a good job — about $12.50 an hour — and planned to pay off the rest of the home so she could save for college. She had worked hard to buy that home and build up her credit rating.

For a few months after the fire, she kept making payments on the loan for a gutted house before she realized it was pointless. She asked her brother for a place to live. He gave them a room, where she and the boys shared one blanket, Mendez recalls. She had no clothes, no phone or documents.

Then she lost her job. She was a quality control manager for a factory, but she said she couldn’t concentrate on her work. In retrospect, she believes she might have been dealing with depression.

Mendez had never heard about the problems with Ford trucks before the fire. That green truck was parked there every day, and she never gave it much thought.

“I never paid attention to what kind of truck was parked next to my house,” she said.

Since the fire, Mendez has rallied. She found a new job and an apartment. But she hasn’t been able to start those college accounts.

“At that moment, I lost all my dreams,” she said of the fire. “It’s really hard for me to explain. It feels like all my dreams fell down.”



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