News recently broke that the Austin Police Department is pulling its fleet of 400 Ford Explorers off of the road due to officers showing symptoms of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning and testing positive for elevated levels of the chemical in their bloodstream. So far, blood tests on 18 officers have detected elevated levels of CO. News reports also indicate that at least 3 officers have been sidelined from duty because of carbon monoxide exposure.
Aside from the immediate concerns regarding the health of the police officers and how the city will be properly patrolled with a significant number of vehicles out of service, this story raises a couple of other important questions. First, how concerned should Ford Explorer owners be about potential carbon monoxide exposure? Additionally, how does the law work if it turns out that there is some kind of defect with the Ford Explorer?
Is the Ford Explorer a Danger to the General Public?
I'm sure there are many law firms out there that will read about this story and immediately start hyperventilating about America's newest death trap, the Ford Explorer. Hysteria is easy, since the Austin Police Department seems to have traced the source of their officers' carbon monoxide exposure to this vehicles. However, rushing to pass judgment on the Ford Explorer without all of the facts would be incredibly irresponsible and ignore a crucial detail of this story; police don't use their vehicles like most drivers.
While most of us use our vehicles to get from point A to point B, for police officers, their vehicles function as an office on wheels. This means that when officers aren't responding to calls, they're spending a significant time idling. It's quite possible that this behavior allows time for exhaust to build up inside the cabin of the vehicle that would otherwise be swept harmlessly away by a moving vehicle.
For people who are using their Explorers to transport the family around town, they are generally moving, idling only at traffic lights and in heavy traffic, which means unless this problem is more serious than it appears at this time, they shouldn't be in immediate danger.
With that being said, while non-police Explorer owners shouldn't overreact to this news and simply stop driving their vehicles, they may want to brush up on the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning and avoid idling their vehicles for long periods of time with the windows rolled up. For those who wish to do more, there are products designed to monitor CO levels inside the vehicle.
Such precautions may be warranted, because there is troubling anecdotal evidence that the experience of the Austin Police Department with its Ford Explorer fleet does not appear to be isolated. Reports of similar issues have come up in California, Louisiana, and other parts of Texas. These incidents all involve police vehicles, not the Ford Explorers sold to the general public. There is even one potential incident in California where carbon monoxide in the cabin may have contributed to the death of an officer. That may be why, before sidelining its Ford Explorers, Austin went so far as to install onboard carbon monoxide detectors in order to protect their officers. Both Ford and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration are reportedly looking into the problem.
This isn't the first time that we've heard about a problem with Ford vehicles and issues with exhaust getting into the cabin. In fact, a former employee of the law firm had a similar issue with his Ford Mustang. While driving in traffic, he would often smell the slight scent of car exhaust inside the vehicle and be overcome with fatigue. While this is admittedly an anecdote and no basis for reading too much into an car company's products, we weren't completely gobsmacked when we heard that the police cruisers in this story were Fords.
What Does the Law Say About Dangerous Vehicles?
Obviously, vehicles that could potentially cause their occupants to lose consciousness are a hazard. The area of the law that deals with dangerous consumer goods is known as products liability law. In a nutshell, products liability holds manufacturers accountable when products that are unreasonably dangerous or defective injure a consumer.
While most of us are familiar with the warranties that come in little books, on sheets of paper, or on labels that accompany almost everything we buy, there is also such a thing as an implied warranty. Implied warranties are an umbrella term for the guarantees that manufacturers extend to consumers just by the mere fact that they sell their wares. Just as everyone accepts a whole slew of legal responsibilities every time we hop in our cars to go for a drive, manufacturers bear legal burdens by their choice to enter the marketplace; I agree not to hit other motorists, manufacturers agree to make a car that doesn't injure its occupants.
The most common component of an implied warranty is what is known as an implied warranty of merchantability. Stripping out the legalese from the phrase, it simply means the law holds that when you buy a product, it's going to behave and do what you would expect the product to do. For instance, a car that is for sale would do car stuff. It's that simple. I think most people would agree that part of cars doing car stuff is that they don't leak potentially deadly gasses into the cabin area of the vehicle.
If our theory is correct, and the issues that the Austin Police Department is experiencing with its Ford Explorers are the result of police officers idling more than other drivers, some might suggest that the vehicle does work as advertised, but that any issues are the result of the Austin P.D. using their vehicles incorrectly. From a certain perspective, one may argue that idling for long periods of time is not different than people who idle their cars in the garage, with the door closed. The problem with this line of thinking is that police vehicles are sold by manufacturers as appropriate for police-work. Any time a manufacturer makes a claim that a product is suited for a given task, it creates what is know as an implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose.
Implied warrant of fitness for a particular purpose is a mouthful to say, but the logic behind it is remarkably simple. This principle assumes that manufacturers know the capabilities of their products better than their customers. So when a customer makes the manufacturer aware that they intend to use the product for some particular task, like policing, and the manufacturer tells the consumer that their product will get the job done, the manufacturer is responsible for any injuries that result from their product failing during the course of that task. To put it another way, if you sell a car specifically for police use, you can't turn around and blame the police when problems arise when cops use their vehicles like cops.
That's why even if the abnormal amount of idling that police do in the course of their work is contributing to the Austin officers' injuries, whoever sold these vehicles as police vehicles can't defend themselves by saying that police spend too much time idling.
Absent the Austin P.D. completely misidentifying the source of carbon monoxide exposure, it is quite likely that both Austin and any injured officers will have the basis to pursue legal action against Ford. For as long as cars have been burning gasoline, they've been emitting carbon monoxide. The problem of keeping that gas away from the occupants of the vehicle is at least a century old and most carmakers solved that problem a long time ago. From what has been reported, it certainly looks like Austin has spent millions of dollars on vehicles that don't do what they are said by the manufacturer to be able to do. In the process, several officers have been injured badly enough that they were unable to work, reportedly by their own patrol cars.
While cautioning that it's too soon to overreact to the recent news about Ford Explorers, this is definitely a story worth monitoring.