Kuga flames lick at Ford
The Motor Industry Ombudsman has asked why he was not told of a potential "critical safety issue" by car manufacturer Ford as more customers come forward, alleging that their Kuga SUVs had suddenly caught fire.
Speaking to The Times, ombudsman Johan van Vreden said Ford had not reported the death of 33-year-old Reshall Jimmy, who died when his Kuga suddenly caught fire, or a dozen other sudden fires in 2014 Kuga models.
After an exposé by The Times, the National Consumer Commission said it had called Ford executives to a meeting on Monday to discuss allegations that the cars were liable to ignite.
On Monday The Times reported that Jimmy was killed when his car burst into flames in December last year. Two forensic reports cited electrical faults as "the cause of the fire".
One of the reports, by the police forensic unit, said arson was highly unlikely and also excluded natural causes and negligence.
Ford conducted a third forensic investigation that Jimmy's family are furious about, saying it is delaying finalisation of the matter.
The vehicle was first inspected shortly after Jimmy's death, and again in January.
Van Vreden, currently overseas, said that immediately on his return he would take up the matter with Ford SA's managing director.
"What's worrying is that Ford is asking for another investigation. Why? Are they playing for time?" Van Vreden said.
He said there were two types of recall. There could be a service problem, of which customers were usually unaware, and which was resolved when vehicles were serviced; or there could be a critical safety issue, which had to be publicised.
"If a manufacturer does not publish [notice of] a critical safety issue, there is major trouble and I take them to task. We must be told of such issues so we can provide customers with information on what they must do."
He said it was worrying that Ford had not notified him of the issue.
"You don't wait a year to tell an ombudsman about a potentially critical safety issue, not when a death has occurred.
"They do their customers a disservice. If they had told us our experts could have dealt with this sooner and, if not, we could have found people who could have."
National Consumer Commission spokesman Trevor Hattingh said that the commission could enlist the services of independent experts for investigations.
Ford has said it is taking customer allegations seriously.
John Gardiner, Ford Europe's director for news operations, said: "As we have consistently stated, safety is one of our company's highest priorities and we take the safety of our customers very seriously."
He said Ford was working with the authorities on the investigation into Jimmy's death.
"It would be inappropriate to comment further about the ongoing investigation at this time."
On the increasing number of customers reporting that their Kuga has caught fire, he said: "We are aware that customers have alleged possible fires in Kugas on social media, and are prepared to investigate vehicles reported to Ford. If our investigation finds that there is a safety defect, we will move quickly on behalf of our customers if action is needed.
"If customers experience problems with their Kugas or have a vehicle fire to report, we recommend they bring their vehicle to a Ford dealership for service or call Ford's Customer Service."
He denied that Ford had withheld assistance from customers who voiced complaints on Facebook.
Kuga drivers who spoke to The Times claimed company representatives had tried to strong-arm them into deleting social media posts that criticised the company.
Jimmy's sister, Renisha Jimmy, said recent videos on their Facebook group, FordVehiclesBurning, were removed.
"Two weeks ago a woman whose Kuga burned removed her video. She said Ford would only assist if she took it down."
The woman, who asked not to be named out of fear that she would not be assisted, told The Times her Ford dealership told her it would help only if she removed the video.
"I did, but I am still waiting. I contacted the dealership but was told they don't know what I was talking about as I can't remember the name of the person who phoned me or provide their number. They phoned from a private number."
Consumer protection lawyer Janusz Luterek said the Consumer Protection Act stated that anyone who imported, manufactured or sold a product in South Africa could be held liable for harm caused due to any defect in the product.
"Under the act there is an obligation to recall a product when a company becomes aware of a potential hazard.
"The act allows the National Consumer Commission to order a company to recall a product if it has reasonable grounds to believe that the goods are unsafe."
In an earlier response to questions from The Times, Ford said it had not considered a recall.
"While we continuously evaluate our processes for potential improvements, our decisions are driven by the data available. When the data indicate a safety recall is needed, we move quickly on behalf of our customers."