The Minnesota Court of Appeals has dismissed a product liability and breach of warranty suit against Ford Motor Co. because the owners failed to properly preserve the scene of a fire allegedly caused by a defect in their 1993 Taurus.
The owners also failed to safeguard the car in a way that would have allowed Ford's fire investigators to examine it before it became further damaged, undermining the company's ability to defend itself in the case, the court said.
In January 1993, Daniel Hoffman parked his 1993 Taurus in his garage. The garage contained a Chevrolet Suburban, a tractor, gas-powered yard implements, firewood, motor oil and gasoline cans.
About a half-hour later, the garage caught fire and was damaged severely, along with the attached house. After the fire was extinguished, a state fire marshal took photos of the scene, including the Taurus parked inside the garage.
The next day, Hoffman called the dealership that had sold the car, Brookdale Ford in Brooklyn Center, to cancel a service appointment and to request copies of the sales invoice, warranty and loan papers.
He told a dealership employee that the car had started a fire in his garage but made no formal claim and did not notify Ford.
His homeowner's insurer immediately hired fire investigators, who examined the scene and took photos.
Later, the garage and home were demolished and the Taurus was towed to a salvage yard and stored outdoors.
Hoffman and his wife sued Ford Motor Co. in Hennepin County Circuit Court in February 1994, alleging defective manufacture and breach of warranty. Ford then hired its own fire investigators, who inspected the Taurus in the salvage yard.
Ford's experts complained that photos taken by the Hoffmans' experts were not clear and not comprehensive enough and that the car had been stored outdoors, causing corrosion.
The Hoffmans' experts asserted that the fire started in the Taurus, most likely caused by a connector to the antilock brake system's electronics module. Ford's experts concluded that it started in the garage somewhere in front of the car.
Ford's attorney, Wayne Struble of Minneapolis, said, 'We could determine that the car did not start the fire, but we couldn't say what did.'
Judge Charles Porter dismissed the suit without trial.
The appeals court upheld that decision, saying the Hoffmans could not use any testimony or evidence derived from the car and the fire scene because essential evidence had been lost, altered or destroyed.
After the fire, the Hoffmans and their insurer failed to notify Ford, request an inspection or meeting, allege a warranty problem or indicate plans to file a claim, the court said.
Not until the lawsuit was filed did the company learn of the situation, and by then the house and garage had been torn down, the burn pattern on the hood had been partly obliterated by corrosion and parts of the allegedly defective ABS had been damaged or lost.
All that deprived Ford of an opportunity 'to conduct a firsthand investigation of a myriad of possible alternative ignition sources at the scene of the fire' and 'to examine the Taurus at the scene with fresh burn patterns and with the ABS system intact,' it said.
Struble, the Ford attorney, said the decision is important in two ways:
First, it signals that manufacturers are entitled to notice that a claim may be made so they can investigate the situation properly and promptly.
Second, he continued, the court reaffirmed that 'destruction of evidence need not be intentional for there to be a sanction.'
The Hoffmans' attorney, Joseph Lulic of Minneapolis, said he did not know whether there would be a further appeal.