Family of Fort Worth Officer Killed in Explosion Sues Ford Motor Co.

Dwayne Freeto was a U.S. Army veteran who had been with the Fort Worth Police Department for only nine months before he was killed in the line of duty on December 17, 2006. Notes the Officer Down Memorial Page: "Officer Dwayne Freeto was killed when his patrol car was struck from behind while he was assisting a motorist with a flat tire on I-35 at 3:50 am. The patrol car burst into flames upon impact, trapping him inside. An off duty detective who witnessed the crash attempted to free Officer Freeto from the wreckage." The man who caused the crash, Samuel Lee Hilburn, was found guilty of intoxication manslaughter in July. The accident occurred south of downtown Fort Worth, and Freeto, who was 34, had been driving his Crown Victoria Police Interceptor.

It's that last fact that has led to a lawsuit against Ford Motor Company: Attorneys representing Freeto's family filed suit yesterday in in Tarrant County's 348th District Court, alleging that "the Crown Victoria's flawed gas tank design" led to the explosion upon impact. Freeto was survived by his wife Karen and two daughters, who were 3 and 9 at the time of the accident and who are pictured above. The full media release follows. --Robert Wilonsky

Suit Filed Against Ford Motor Co. in Death of Fort Worth Police Officer

Family of Officer Dwayne Freeto Charges Negligence in Gas Tank Design

FORT WORTH, Texas - Attorneys from the Fort Worth, Texas, law firm of Kobs, Haney & Hundley are announcing a lawsuit against Ford Motor Co. on behalf of the family of a Fort Worth police officer who was killed when the gas tank on his Crown Victoria police cruiser exploded.

Officer Dwayne Freeto died on Dec. 17, 2006, when his Crown Victoria Police Interceptor squad car exploded in flames after being rear-ended by another vehicle driven by an intoxicated driver. The 34-year-old officer had stopped to assist a stranded motorist on Interstate 35 just south of downtown Fort Worth. Witnesses attempted to rescue Officer Freeto after the explosion but were unable to reach him because of the intense fire.

Attorneys for the family say that Ford executives have known about the Crown Victoria's flawed gas tank design for years, but have chosen to ignore the dangers.

"Our law enforcement officers deserve safe vehicles," says attorney Mark Haney, counsel for the Freeto family. "It is our hope to get justice for the Freeto family, and to convince Ford to finally take necessary steps to protect police officers and the public from what we believe is a deathtrap in rear-end collisions."

Haney and his law partner Jeff Kobs filed the lawsuit yesterday in Tarrant County's 348th District Court on behalf of Officer Freeto's widow, their two minor daughters, and the officer's parents. The lawsuit also includes claims of negligence against the driver who struck Officer Freeto's vehicle.

Earlier this year, a Fort Worth jury found the driver, Samuel Lee Hilburn, guilty of intoxication manslaughter and sentenced him to 13 years in prison.

Following the fatal crash, the Texas Legislature passed a law that allows sentences of up to life in prison for drunken drivers convicted of killing police officers, firefighters or other emergency personnel. The law is named for Officer Freeto and Darren Medlin, a Grapevine, Texas, police officer killed in 2004 by a drunken driver. Officer Freeto was a U.S. Army veteran who had served with the Fort Worth Police Department for only nine months before his death.

The Freeto family's suit is one of numerous claims across the United States involving police and civilian burn injuries and deaths tied to Ford's Crown Victoria/Panther Platform line of vehicles following rear-end collisions. Numerous studies show that the gas tank in these models is poorly located and can be readily punctured in rear-end collisions.

According to the Center for Auto Safety, since 1992, more than 100 people have died in fires following rear-end collisions involving Ford Crown Victorias, including more than 30 police officers. Despite the fatalities, Ford has maintained that its design is safe. An estimated 5 million unprotected Crown Victorias, Lincoln Town Cars and Grand Marquis models remain in use by civilian motorists.