Before Freeto could be dragged out of his Crown Victoria, fuel from the crumpled gas tanked ignited and burned him to death. "He survived the wreck, there were people talking to him," says Mark Haney, the attorney who now represents the Freeto family in a negligence suit against the Ford Motor Company. "The medical examiner says there was no blunt force trauma, but there was soot in his lungs suggesting he was ingesting super heated air. There were eyewitnesses who tried to get him out of the car."
Unfortunately, Freeto isn't the first person to survive a rear-end collision in a Crown Victoria only to be killed by the fire that followed. Because the gas tank is located behind the rear axle, critics say the vehicles are more likely to catch fire in a high-speed rear-end collision.
"If Ford doesn't change what they are doing, this won't be the last case either. There are going be more," says Haney.
There are an estimated 5 million Crown Victoria vehicles on the roads in the US. Many are used in taxi fleets and hundreds of police departments use the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor model as squad cars. According to the Centre for Auto Safety, since 1992, more than 100 people have died in fires following rear-end collisions involving Ford Crown Victorias, including more than 30 police officers. Thousands of other Americans have been seriously burned.
Ford's Crown Victoria, Lincoln Town Car and Grand Marquis vehicles are built on what Ford calls its "Panther Platform". "Nobody else in America puts their tank in the crush zone of a vehicle—not since the 60's," says attorney Haney. "Everybody knows the best place for a gas tank is in front of the rear axle. That's where you get the most protection."
"It astounds me, I don't get it," says Haney. His firm-- Kobs, Haney & Hundley-- has recently filed a lawsuit against the Ford Motor Company, claiming Ford is guilty of negligence in the design of the vehicle. "It is not like this is a new design flaw that Ford is not aware of; in fact they have known about it for years. Ford has been litigated successfully around the country many times."
Ford says there is no way to guarantee against explosions. The Crown Victoria has a 5 star front-end crash rating from the National Safety Board, according to Ford and no vehicle design can eliminate the risk of fire from a high-speed rear end collision.
"This was an absolutely survivable accident," says Haney. "Officer Freeto never should have been burned to death. He should be holding his babies and raising his family today."
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The motto at Haney's firm is 'tough lawyers, caring people'. It's a good description of Haney's approach to being a lawyer. "I do this because I believe in it," says Haney, "and this case is something that never should have happened."
Mark Haney is a partner with Kobs, Haney & Hundley. He has been a practicing lawyer in Texas since 1987 and recognized as Texas Super Lawyer in 2007. He a member of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association and the Association of American Justice.