‘Who paid you?’ judge asks investigator who found Ford faultless
Court papers from litigation between Ford and private individuals indicate that Ford paid Exponent about R1.4bn
The space shuttle explosion, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, 9/11 – and deadly Ford Kuga fires.
When big companies design something that catches fire, these companies often turn to Exponent Incorporated.
This is how Exponent Incorporated principal engineer, John Loud, in charge of investigating the Ford Kuga fire that killed Reshall Jimmy, kicked off his testimony in the Cape Town High Court last week – with a PowerPoint presentation listing the projects the company has been involved in.
He said their involvement in the investigation was objective, but Judge R Henney asked him: “Who paid you?”
AfriForum private prosecutor Gerrie Nel, who has taken on the Jimmy family’s case, introduced doubt into Exponent’s role during his questioning in court on Monday, where an inquest into Jimmy’s death is being held.
Court papers from litigation in Texas between Ford and private individuals indicate that between 1999 and 2011, Ford paid Exponent (formerly Failure Analysis Associates) about $106m (R1.4bn).
Nel said other court records showed that in about 500 lawsuits involving motor vehicle manufacturers, Exponent not once made a conclusive finding.
Loud admitted he was being paid by Ford to conduct his investigation, but the judge’s critique of his evidence was not about who paid him. Rather, it was about his methods for testing hypotheses he said did not accurately emulate what was concluded by other investigators.
The investigator with 23 years’ experience conducted a series of tests on a number of Ford Kugas that were shipped to the US for him to set on fire in his laboratory.
But on Monday the court heard that his methods for testing were crude in comparison with the conditions required to reconstruct what experts believe really happened.
After setting a dashboard on fire with a blowtorch for three minutes, and pressing two live wires together, Loud concluded that Jimmy’s Ford Kuga could not have caught fire as a result of an electrical short circuit.
In fact, he did not come to any conclusion other than that Ford was not at fault.
His experiments were conducted in March this year, after Nel and his team had started taking on Ford in the inquest into Jimmy’s death and after more than 80 Kugas had caught fire across the country – despite a safety recall of 4,500 cars to be fixed.
SA fire investigator Hendrik McLeod, who conducted the first investigation on behalf of the Telesure insurance company, shortly after the fire happened in December 2015, along with investigators from the police and Ford’s representative, stated unequivocally that the fire started in the front passenger compartment behind the dashboard.
He told the court on Monday that the fire started because of an electrical short circuit between two high-current wires, and that a fuse in the “body control module” did not “fail”, as it should have to cut power in case of a short circuit.
“This is why electrical fires happen. The fuse does not function properly,” said McLeod.
Loud concluded there were various possible sources of the fire despite these sources, such as a cellphone, a battery, a vaping device and a lighter, being covered in a thick layer of melted plastic.
McLeod pointed out that the floor, made of combustible material, and on which these supposed sources were lying, did not catch fire.
McLeod also said that during the fire investigation they found Jimmy’s wallet in the driver’s-door compartment with his licence and R780 in cash inside. The unburnt money and licence were handed to his sister, Ranisha.
According to McLeod, the plastic housing around the fire started melting after arcing was caused by repeated electrical short circuiting between two copper wires.
The arc, which burns at 700°C, would melt more and more plastic, causing “pyrolysis” and the release of hot toxic gases over time.
Eventually, a small fire started, melting the PVC vents, which control air intake from the outside of the car.
“There are superheated gases inside the vehicle, and when the oxygen came through the vents, the air inside would have ignited, causing the vehicle to be engulfed in flames,” said McLeod.
He said that similar to building fires in cases such as these, the victims might have already died as a result of inhalation of the toxic gases.
He ruled out any “criminal act” that may have been involved in Jimmy’s death.
Only minutes before the fire, witnesses at the Fairy Knowe hotel, who have already testified in court, said they saw Jimmy’s vehicle leaving the hotel.
McLeod said it seemed the vehicle came to a rolling stop, or that the driver stopped, but the handbrake was not pulled up. Jimmy’s seatbelt was still locked in place when the investigators inspected the vehicle.
The case continues.