Fearless prosecutor advocate Gerrie Nel announced in Centurion on Wednesday that he will be supporting the family of the late Reshall Jimmy who burnt to death in his Ford Kuga almost three years ago.
This will form part of a larger strategy of building a private prosecutions unit for civil rights group AfriForum that will, among other things, defend citizens against corporate bullies, Nel said.
Around and after Jimmy’s death in the fire, a large number of Ford Kuga sport utility vehicles (SUVs) seemingly spontaneously caught fire. According to Reshall’s sister, Renisha Jimmy, there could be more than 60 cases in South Africa. Similar events occurred in other countries where the Ford Kuga was sold.
Under pressure from the National Consumer Commission (NCC), Ford in January last year announced a phased recall to make certain modifications to the vehicles to prevent further fires.
The NCC has been investigating the matter but has not given any public feedback on the status of its investigation.
At the briefing on Wednesday, newlyweds Wynand and Carla Ambrosius from Standerton related how their Ford Kuga caught fire in June this year while parked in their garage, despite having gone through the recall process. Wynand barely escaped with his life, but the couple lost their Kuga and another vehicle, and a large portion of their house was destroyed.
According to Nel the criminal justice system has failed the Jimmy family.
He said that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) refused to prosecute Ford and won’t give the family a nolle prosequi (‘will no longer prosecute’) certificate, which is a prerequisite for a private prosecution, as it is waiting for the results of the inquest.
AfriForum assisted the family in the process that led to the announcement that the inquest will be held in the High Court in Cape Town on February 4 next year. Nel will also represent the family in the pre-trial conference that will take place this week.
Nel said it is unacceptable that “international corporate bullies like Ford regard themselves as above the law”.
“We were astonished that Ford ceased all communication with the victims and, during discussions with the family, made statements like we have deep pockets,” Nel said.
He said that Neale Hill, the new MD of Ford South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa (from July 1, 2018), and the group’s lawyers, have admitted to making the statement to the Jimmy family. When Nel confronted them about it, they wanted to explain the context. “Bullies always want to rationalise their conduct,” he said.
He described how his meetings with Ford and its lawyers initially seemed productive, but subsequently they sent him letters that contradicted that impression. They also accused him of threatening them.
Nel said he did make it clear that AfriForum would hold a media briefing and leave the decision about Ford’s conduct to “the court of public opinion”.
He asked why Ford has failed to provide the family and the authorities with two reports from different experts who investigated the fire that killed Jimmy.
“We believe that this information will support the family’s version of the events surrounding the fire, among others, that the fire was caused by a mechanical fault,” he said.
Nel said the Ambrosius couple was treated in the same way as the Jimmys. Ford removed the evidence, allegedly to have it analysed and the same investigator was involved. As in the Jimmy case the findings were “inconclusive”.
‘Unacceptable’ settlement offers
He said there were similarities between the two events, and that in both cases Ford made settlement offers that were unacceptable to the victims.
He said that if Ford knew there was a problem with the Kuga before it launched the vehicle in South Africa and went ahead with the launch anyway, there would be an opportunity to prosecute the company criminally. If the NPA decides against prosecution following the findings of the inquest, AfriForum will consider a private prosecution on behalf of the Jimmy family.
Renisha Jimmy said that all the family wants is for Ford to take responsibility and admit that a defect in its vehicles caused the fires. She said the family doesn’t want anybody else to die and wants Reshall’s name cleared of allegations that he was murdered or committed suicide.
She said the family hopes to find the closure about Reshall’s death that has so far eluded them, since the past three years have been one long fight to get answers.
The Jimmy family will file papers in a civil action related to Reshall’s death in December.
Moneyweb asked Ford SA to comment on Nel’s characterisation of the group as a corporate bully, and the allegation that the Ambrosius couple’s Kuga caught fire despite having undergone the recall modifications.
Ford product communication manager Minesh Bhagaloo responded as follows: “Our deepest sympathies continue to be with the Jimmy family. We remain cooperative with the authorities to help all parties reach a resolution, including the start of a formal inquest to gain closure on the many unanswered questions surrounding this case.
“Customers can be assured that our commitment remains on delivering safe vehicles.”