Ford Kuga fire inquest judge Robert Hennie popped the long-awaited question on Tuesday: “If the person was not incapacitated, why didn’t they get out of the a burning vehicle?”
Hennie’s question was directed at Ford’s lawyers and their car fire expert, John Loud, who proclaimed in the Cape Town high court that Reshall Jimmy could not have been incapacitated by smoke from the fire that engulfed his car in December 2015.
Ford sent four new Kugas to the US for Loud and his team to test the hypothesis put forward by three other experts, including the police and private forensic investigator Daniel Joubert, who looked into the fire on behalf of Jimmy’s family.
While the experts had different hypotheses about the precise point of ignition, they all agreed that the fire started above the front passenger seat footwell and pointed to short circuits in either the “body control module” or the wiring behind the passenger cubbyhole.
Loud disputed Joubert’s assertion that Jimmy passed out after inhaling carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide from the body control module being set on fire by electrical arcing.
Loud said that in his tests, which consisted of setting the module of a new Ford Kuga on fire with a 15cm flame from a blow torch, their devices detected no hydrogen cyanide and a relatively small amount of carbon monoxide.
He said the module, which controls switches, would have stopped functioning immediately.
But Hennie immediately queried several issues with Loud’s tests, including their credibility. He noted that they were conducted more than three years after the fire happened, they were paid for by Ford, and no objective observer was present.
“This is the difficulty I have with this whole process. This is how we deal with evidence in South Africa: we get either someone from the police or the director of public prosecutions to be an objective observe. The credibility of the tests might be questioned. Someone from the office of the director of public prosecutions or someone from the US with similar authority should have been present,” he said.
Hennie also pointed out that Loud was not a medical expert and could not testify on the physiological effect of the gases on the human body. This was after Loud said the gases would not have caused Jimmy to pass out.
Loud did not claim to have found the cause of the fire and said many objects could have started it – but nothing dealt with why Jimmy did not simply open the door and exit the vehicle when he smelt burning plastic.
“No person would sit in a vehicle where you are engulfed with flames, unless you had a death wish,” said Hennie.
“One has to go back to old-fashioned common sense and ask: if the person wasn’t incapacitated, why didn’t they get out of the vehicle?”
Ford’s counsel Andre Bezuidenhout agreed that this was the determining question.
Hennie also took issue with Loud’s statement that the lights of the vehicle would have gone out when the flames “attacked” the body control module.
Loud admitted he did not test whether the lights would have gone out because it seemed “trivial” to him.
Evidence from witness testimonies and videos taken from the scene showed that while the inside of the car was completely engulfed in flames, the brake lights were still working 20 minutes after the fire started.
Loud insinuated that such a test would have been too costly for Ford. “We had thousands of dollars of equipment in that vehicle. We could have done that test, but we didn’t. It seems trivial,” he said.
Hennie was anticipating private prosecutor Gerrie Nel’s response to Loud’s statements.
Nel, who works for Afriforum and is representing the Jimmy family’s interests in the inquest, nodded in agreement with Hennie’s critique of the witness.
Under cross-examination, two of the first witnesses on the scene implicated former Ford SA CEO Jeff Nemeth in possibly interfering with the investigation when he asked them to include testimony in a second statement that they had seen a suspicious-looking vehicle close to the scene of the fire.
Nemeth was recalled to the US in 2017. In the same year, Ford did a safety recall of 4,550 Kugas in SA. More than 80 Kugas have caught fire since Jimmy’s death in 2015.
The Sunday Times reported last month that the National Consumer Commission completed its two-year investigation into Ford’s handling of the fires in its cars in South Africa and had requested that the consumer tribunal prosecute Ford.
The inquest continues.