AUSTIN – Travis County District Judge Scott Jenkins has taken charge of lawsuits from 28 counties over fires in Ford engines, with more plaintiffs than anyone can count.
The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation assigned 77 suits to Jenkins in March, after consolidating them at Ford's request in February.
"We are confident that were these 77 cases to proceed on their own, without consolidation, there would be duplicate discovery," Justice Douglas Lang wrote.
The suits allege that defective cruise control switches started fires when drivers braked.
"The precise number of plaintiffs and intervenors has not been described by plaintiffs and we cannot make that determination on this record on our own," Lang wrote.
The panel copied the Federal Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, which recently consolidated 50 engine fire suits against Ford into federal court at Detroit.
Jenkins will preside over pretrial action. For trials, he will send the cases back to the 28 county courthouses.
Some suits add claims against Texas Instruments, which made the switches, and E. I. Du Pont De Nemours, which supplied film that coated the switches.
Some plaintiffs also sued Ford dealers.
Attorneys for most plaintiffs opposed consolidation, arguing that differences among the cases outweighed their similarities.
Charles Houssiere of Houston had undercut his side's position, however, by moving in Dallas County district court to consolidate 11 suits involving 76 plaintiffs.
Ford moved for consolidation last November. "All 77 cases allege that a fire originated in the speed control deactivation switch of a Ford vehicle," the motion stated.
"Nearly all of the plaintiffs allege strict liability and negligence against Ford and many also assert claims for breach of express and implied warranties," Ford pleaded.
The panel agreed, ruling that all 77 cases were related.
Lang wrote, "In order for us to conclude that cases are 'related,' there must be common issues, but the cases need not be identical."
He wrote, "We conclude, on this record and at this time, the question of whether the switch was defective in each vehicle, in each case, is a common issue of fact."
Plaintiffs have argued that the defect isn't an issue at all. They claim Ford admitted the defect in 2005, when it started recalling vehicles for switch replacement.
In response Ford argues that its recall notices stated that switches may overheat, not that all switches were defective.
Lang wrote, "At this point in time, and on this record only, that remains an issue over which the plaintiffs and Ford will have not only disagreement, but litigation."
He wrote, "At least that essential issue is common in each case."
Sixteen cases came from Harris County, 14 from Dallas County, eight from Hidalgo County, five each from Tarrant and Travis counties, and four from Bexar County.
The judges consolidated two cases from Jefferson County.
In a case they took from District Judge Donald Floyd, Russell Little of Houston represents plaintiff Mid Century Insurance of Texas as subrogee of Guillermina Luna.
William Moye of Thompson, Coe, Cousins and Irons in Houston represents Ford in that case and others around the state.
In a case they took from District Judge Milton Shuffield, Beaumont attorneys Jason Byrd and Wyatt Snyder represent Beaumont Auto Dealer's Auction.
Damond Kelly Garza of Prichard, Hawkins, McFarland and Young in San Antonio represents Ford in that case and others.
In its statewide defense Ford has also retained Brian Hensley of Thompson Coe in Austin, Adolfo Rodriguez and Basheer Ghorayeb of the Rodriguez law firm in Dallas, Bernardo Garza and Dawn Rogers of Callier and Garza in Houston, and Alison Kennamer of Rodriguez, Colvin, Chaney and Saenz in Brownsville.
Eric Mayer and Chanler Langham of Susman Godfrey in Houston represent Texas Instruments.
Andrew Schirrmeister and Dana Speer of Schirrmeister Diaz-Arrastia Bram in Houston represent Du Pont.