The family of Dwayne Freeto, the Fort Worth police officer who burned to death when his Crown Victoria squad car was rear-ended and burst into flames, is suing the Ford Motor Co., saying the car's unreasonably dangerous design contributed to his death.
Freeto's widow, his two children and his parents also are suing Samuel Lee Hilburn, the drunken driver who triggered the fatal four-car crash in 2006. Hilburn was sentenced to 13 years in prison earlier this year. "The game plan, and what we hope will happen, is that Ford's executives will rethink this particular design, especially for the law enforcement community," said Mark Haney, the Fort Worth attorney representing the family.
"Ford executives know that they are 140 percent more likely to be involved in this kind of accident. ... But they don't change any of the design or make the fuel system more robust knowing that they have this higher risk," he said.
Karen Freeto, Dwayne's widow, said she is filing the lawsuit to let the public know about the car's deadly design and she hopes to prevent another tragic accident from happening.
She said her daughters, 10-year-old Jordin and 4-year-old Jenna, are still dealing with the loss of their father. Jordin has become withdrawn and angry. Jenna was young when her father died, but she and her sister both see counselors.
"I don't want this to happen to anyone else. I don't what them to deal with what I'm dealing with every single day," she said. "I constantly have thoughts about the accident and you replay it in your mind."
The Freetos are seeking an unspecified amount in damages.
Fatal crashFreeto, 34, burned to death in December 2006 after his patrol car was hit from behind while he was aiding a motorist on Interstate 35 near the Morningside Drive exit.
Freeto was sitting in the squad car, a 2005 Crown Victoria, where he had parked on the outside shoulder of the interstate with his lights flashing. The doors of the car were jammed shut by the impact, the lawsuit states.
Hilburn, 22, was driving his Lexus southbound on I-35 when he slammed into the back of Freeto's squad car, trapping the officer in his car. Both the Crown Victoria and Hilburn's car burst into flames.
Freeto's squad car then slammed into the disabled BMW driven by Adriana Delgadillo and then into a Dodge Ram pickup owned by her friend, Rogelio Delgado, who had come to help Delgadillo.
During Hilburn's trial earlier this year, an expert witness testified that Hilburn was going 97 mph when the crash occurred. Hilburn had a blood alcohol content of 0.20, or 2 1/2 times the legal limit of 0.08.
According to documents provided by Haney, Freeto apparently survived the initial crash but was trapped and unconscious. The Tarrant County medical examiner ruled that Freeto's death was caused by the fire, Haney said.
Design concernsAt least 30 law enforcement officers have burned to death after their Crown Victorias were rear-ended, according to the advocacy Web site, www.crownvictoriasafetyalert.com. Another 11 officers were injured in crashes.
Ford has steadfastly defended the Crown Victoria. In 2003, after several police departments expressed concerns about the car's safety, the automaker began offering gas-tank shields. Freeto's car was outfitted with a shield.
The shield is supposed to help prevent fuel-tank explosions in a rear-impact collision of up to 75 mph.
Haney said their investigation revealed that Hilburn's car was going only 75 mph, which he said is a "normal highway speed," and one that Freeto could have survived if the car had been properly designed.
"A: It is a bad design. B: It's particularly a bad design if you are going to put into an environment where you are going to be exposed to those with a higher potential for risk," Haney said.