NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Ford Motor Co. engineers told Volvo engineers in 2002 that they needed to de-emphasize vehicle rooftop safety in order to get in line with the position of their then-new corporate parent, The New York Times reported Saturday, citing documents that have emerged in recent court cases.
The issue has come to the fore in recent lawsuits concerning vehicle rollovers, which result in more than 10,000 deaths and 16,000 serious injuries each year, the Times said.
The passenger vehicle operations of Volvo, acquired by Ford (Research) in 1999, have emphasized rooftop safety since the late 1960s and mentioned in 1970s advertising that its roof strength far exceeded U.S. standards.
But the paper said American automakers have argued that roof collapses play little role in rollover deaths and injuries, which they believe occur when the occupant is thrown into the roof just before it crushes.
According to the Times, a top Ford safety engineer told a Volvo counterpart in a Nov. 23, 2002 e-mail that it was "absolutely necessary to close the technical differences" between the companies, and that Ford officials wanted the differences solved "immediately."
"U.S. does not currently believe in roof crush as the major contributor to head/neck injuries in rollovers," the Times quoted Ford engineer Priya Prisad as writing in the e-mail.
"This issue has dragged on very long, is very litigation-oriented in U.S. (close to 110 cases pending) and the topmost management in the company is impatient," he wrote, adding that Ford's No. 2 executive at the time, Nicholas V. Scheele, wanted the matter resolved, according to the paper.
The Times said the documents are under court seal, but that three people on the plantiff's side of separate cases read or copied the messages and provided them to the paper.
The paper said Ford officials acknowledged the existence of the documents but provided no details of their contents.
"Ford and Volvo do share the same views regarding roof strength and we have not disagreed," Ford president for environmental and safety issues Susan Cischke told the Times. "Where there has been some confusion is how we talk about things."
The paper said a Volvo safety official declined comment.
Consumer groups are critical of Ford's position on rooftop safety.
"It's malarkey," Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, told the Times. "When you tell people that the roof crushing in on your head is not the cause of injury, it's your head hitting the roof, it's laughable."
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