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Ford can deny its cars to sheriff, judge rules

Ford Motor Co. can refuse to sell police cars to Florida law enforcement agencies that join a lawsuit against the automaker over fuel tank fires, a judge has ruled.

Circuit Judge G. Robert Barron denied Okaloosa County Sheriff Charlie Morris' request that he order Ford to resume selling cars to his department Monday. Ford has refused to sell Crown Victoria interceptors to Morris since July 2003, a year after he sued.

The suit claims the full-size, V-8-powered, four-door sedans have exploded in flames when struck from behind at high speed, in some cases killing officers. It blames poor design.

Barron last month granted class action status, permitting other Florida law enforcement agencies to join the lawsuit. No deadline for joining has been set.

With Barron's ruling in hand, Ford also will refuse to sell the cars to any other agency that participates in the suit, said company lawyer David Cannella.

"It's fundamentally illogical for Sheriff Morris to, on one hand, sue us and, on the other hand, seek the court to order (Ford) to sell him more vehicles," he said.

Barron said case law establishes a company's right to refuse to do business with any customer.

An attorney for Morris, Don Barrett, has said that although the sheriff views the Ford interceptors as defective, he wants to buy new ones to replace aging cars because seeking other vehicles would be more costly.

Barrett acknowledged the sheriff's request for an injunction was a long shot but a chance worth taking.

"They can't bully Sheriff Morris out of this lawsuit and they've been spectacularly unsuccessful," Barrett said.

Barrett said that since Ford refused to sell the Police Interceptors, Morris has bought Ford Explorers and may start buying Chevrolet Impalas, which meet Florida Sheriffs Association vehicle safety standards.

Morris' lawyers say there have been 14 accidents nationwide in which Ford interceptors caught fire after being rear-ended. Ford attorneys say that represents 0.01 percent of its interceptors on the road _ none of them Morris' cars.

Ford also has installed protective shields on the back of the cars, which have gotten five-star crash ratings from federal vehicle safety inspectors, company lawyers say.