Nel’s burning desire is to get former Ford CEO back in SA
Gerrie Nel says Jeff Nemeth must come back from US to answer claims he interfered with state witnesses
Advocate Gerrie Nel wants a former Ford South Africa chief executive to be called from the US to testify in Cape Town after it emerged that he may have interfered with state witnesses.
Two witness in the inquiry into a Ford Kuga fire which led to the death of Reshall Jimmy in 2015, told the High Court in Cape Town that former Ford South Africa CEO Jeff Nemeth asked them to include certain details in a statement to the car manufacturer’s lawyers in May 2017.
On Thursday, the court heard that an eyewitness to the fire, Joe van Zyl, was asked by Nemeth to make a statement to Ford’s lawyer four months after he had made a statement to the police in January.
But the problem, as pointed out by Nel, who represents the Jimmy family in the inquest into the death, was that the statements differed from each other.
Nel grilled Van Zyl about why he included statements such as that he saw a suspicious vehicle making a U-turn in the middle of the road 500m before the location of the fire, and that he overheard a police officer attending the scene saying that Jimmy had a hole in his head.
But it was under cross-examination by Ford’s lawyer that Van Zyl said that Nemeth sat with him when he gave his second statement and told him that Ford’s cars could not catch fire in the cab area if a fire started in the engine compartment.
Asked what he discussed with Nemeth, he said: “Mr Nemeth asked me why we didn’t try and go closer to try and do something. We said that we were afraid that the car might explode. Mr Nemeth explained to us that cars don’t explode. He told us that the cab section is separate from the engine compartment.
“He said [that] if there is a fire in the engine it will not spread to the cab,” said Van Zyl.
After the court adjourned for a lunch break on Thursday, Nel told Ford’s lawyers that he intended raising the fact that he believed Nemeth interfered with two state witnesses. He also asked evidence leader, prosecutor advocate Anthony Stephen, to arrange for Nemeth to be brought to court.
According to another witness and Van Zyl’s friend, Andrew Roberts, Nemeth also asked him to include speculative details which were missing from his original statement to the police.
Roberts explained that he mentioned these details to the police and that he and Van Zyl could also be heard talking about them in videos that were taken from the incident.
Both men said they never felt incentivised to include these details.
Van Zyl explained the discrepancy between the two statements by saying that he gave the police a brief statement, while Ford’s private investigators were asking him to be more detailed.
But he added that when he gave his statement to the police he did not think these details were relevant.
Ford’s lawyers argued that Jimmy was murdered and that a bullet casing was found at the scene of the vehicle. This was after the police investigation led to Ford’s Kuga SUV being the culprit for the fire.
But on Thursday the court also heard from Stephen that the ballistics laboratory results showed that the object which was thought to be a bullet casing had no ballistic value and had no function in a firearm.
Around the time of Jimmy’s death, Kugas across the country started catching fire regularly as a result of a problem with the cooling system, according to Ford. The company recalled more than 4,500 vehicles for safety fixes.
More Kugas have caught fire since those fixes, however, and Nemeth was recalled from SA in May 2017, shortly after meeting with Van Zyl and Roberts.
Since Jimmy’s death in the first Kuga fire in SA, more than 80 of the luxury SUVs have caught fire.
Before adjournment for the court recess on Thursday, Ford’s lawyer, advocate Andre Bezuidenhout, argued that the various parties involved were bound by an internationally recognised standard that governs how investigations into fires involving various parties are dealt with.
Although the protocol documents were not signed by the police or anyone other than Ford’s own investigators, Bezuidenhout said the agreement would allow Ford to also take witness statements surrounding the circumstances of the fire.
Judge Robert Henney resisted police Colonel Richard Tompkin, who oversaw the investigation, from being questioned on the document, because he was concerned that such an agreement, of which he was not aware, would interfere with SA’s laws governing police investigations.
The inquiry will continue on May 13.