Ford pays $49K to couple for 2014 Fiesta, settles defective transmission cases

Phoebe Wall Howard
Detroit Free Press

A Southern California couple pleaded with Ford Motor Co. years ago to buy back a defective 2014 Ford Fiesta but the company declined. Now, Darice and Edward Wirth will be paid $49,228.96, about three times what they requested initially for their leased vehicle that they returned early due to transmission problems.

This is one of many settlements Ford has made in recent months related to the defective DPS6 Powershift transmission as the automaker reduces its pending cases.

The DPS6 Powershift litigation, overseen by U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte Jr., stood at nearly 1,200 cases, according to an April 15 report cited by Bloomberg Law. It has been reduced by more than 80% to 204, Bloomberg Law reported Friday.

Ford customers have claimed in legal filings their 2012-16 Focus and 2011-16 Fiesta compact cars were built with transmissions prone to “shuddering, slipping, bucking, jerking, hesitation while changing gears, premature internal wear, delays in downshifting and, in some cases, sudden or delayed acceleration.”

Ford Focus vehicles are seen on a storage lot on Friday, May 1, 2015 in Ypsilanti.

A Detroit Free Press "Out of Gear" investigation published in July 2019 revealed for the first time internal company documents and emails showing that the Dearborn automaker knew the dual-clutch "Powershift" (DPS6) transmissions on the entry-level vehicles, built over the last decade, were defective from the start and continued building and selling them anyway as customers spent thousands on repairs.

The Wirths accepted Ford's offer of judgment to release their claims for civil penalties and damages, they said Thursday in a filing in the U.S. District Court in the Central District of California. The settlement comes after Ford appealed a federal judge’s denial of its request to arbitrate after Ford litigated the case in court for three years.

'True facts'

"Plaintiffs were harmed by purchasing a vehicle that they would not have purchased had they known the true facts about the transmission and the transmission defects affecting it," wrote the Wirths' attorney, Steve Mikhov, with the Knight Law Group law firm in a 2018 filing.

When the high-profile case was argued in court initially, Ford opened up a voluntary buyback program. The company disclosed in court documents in 2019 that Ford spent $47 million buying back 2,666 Ford Focus and Fiesta vehicles for an average of more than $17,000 each.

More:Ford workers break their silence on faulty transmissions: 'Everybody knew'

More:He drove a defective Ford Focus home in reverse, blames automaker for debt

More recently, lawyer Michael Resnick of Beverly Hills, California,  settled more than 700 cases with confidential terms in the late summer, early fall.

“Our clients are satisfied and thrilled that Ford stepped up to do the right thing," Resnick told the Free Press Sunday.

The automaker is spending millions on settlements, many of which remain confidential. 

"Ford has been striving to resolve customer concerns for several years. While most concerns were resolved long ago, Ford remains committed to fairly consider any remaining concerns," spokesman Said Deep told the Free Press early Monday. 

When asked why Ford is willing to buy back the vehicles now when customers asked for buybacks prior to hiring lawyers and plunging into the legal system, Deep said, "Ford’s resolution program has not changed materially in several years. Ford considers each customer concern and responds appropriately based on the facts."

After Ford bought back their defective 2013 Focus in August 2020, Elaine and Hershel Cecil celebrate with dinner in Lake Havasu, Arizona "at the end of an unpleasant seven year experience."  Hershel said people need to know the Detroit Free Press was "instrumental in bringing information to light" that helped thousands of families. "People just need to be aware of the power and benefit of a free press," he said.

Many Ford owners are getting buybacks, lawyer Roger Kirnos of Los Angeles said Sunday. "I have not seen much of a shift in tone. A lot of cases that have been settled are a fire sale for the amount of a buyback that Ford could have offered before the lawsuits were even filed.  Many consumers had a double digit number of repairs, 10-plus repair presentations, but Ford still ignored them."

Meanwhile, the Wirths fought and settled for restitution plus two times the civil penalty for "willful violation of California’s lemon law," Kirnos said. "The clients had leased the vehicle and returned it early and damages were roughly $15,000. Ford refused to settle when they called Ford asking for a buyback years prior, so damages were ultimately multiplied."

The Wirths, a retired couple, declined to talk with the Free Press.

But their lawyer said they're relieved.

Roger Kirnos, a partner with the Knight Law Firm in Los Angeles, represents more than 200 owners of the Ford Focus and Fiesta vehicles with defective transmissions. This photo was taken in September 2019.

“Getting an injured consumer their money back is fine,” Kirnos said. "But why after three to four years? Why now? The point is, they weren't offering buybacks. It took Mrs. Wirth a lawsuit to get her money."

Court filings have made settlements generally public, though the actual amounts are still confidential..

More:US fraud prosecutors demand Ford Focus, Fiesta documents

Consumer ruling in Michigan pending

Meanwhile, thousands of consumers in Michigan continue to wait for a state Supreme Court ruling on whether they'll clarify protections that will apply to Ford customers.

Phil Kovacs of Northville, Michigan took his wife's 2012 Ford Focus to the shop for five transmission replacements. When Ford wanted to bill them $1,500 for the last repair due to warranty expiration, he found a lawyer who negotiated a settlement in December 2019. Ford paid $19,728.18 to buy back the car.

State Attorney General Dana Nessel, joining half a dozen county prosecutors, filed a legal brief in mid-February urging the Michigan Supreme Court to consider the Ford case so that judges can provide clarity on how the Michigan Consumer Protection Act is properly interpreted and applied.

The Ford case involves an estimated 12,000 consumers from Michigan and throughout the U.S. who opted out of a now-settled class-action lawsuit and chose to sue Ford on their own.

Judge Annette Berry of the Wayne County Circuit Court earlier in the case sided with consumers and ruled the Michigan Consumer Protection Act gives them the standing to sue. An appeals court then disagreed and sided with Ford, saying the act did not apply. Ford owners appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court.

More:As Ford pays owners thousands in Focus, Fiesta transmission case, deadline for payout looms

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Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: 313-222-6512 her on Twitter@phoebesaid. Read more on Ford and sign up for our autos newsletter.