Tongan royals sue Ford for wrongful death

The sons of the Tongan prince killed in a car crash last year on U.S. Highway 101 have sued Ford Motor Co., claiming that the 1998 Ford Explorer the prince and two others were riding in was susceptible to rolling over.

The wrongful-death suit was filed Monday as witnesses took the stand in the criminal case of the teenage driver, Edith Delgado, who stands accused of causing the late-night crash on July 5, 2006.

The 19-year-old Redwood City resident is accused of recklessly speeding and racing her white Ford Mustang before clipping the 1998 red Ford Explorer, which caused it to roll, killing all three passengers near the Willow Road exit in Menlo Park.

Delgado faces three counts of felony vehicular manslaughter for the deaths of Prince Tu’ipelehake, 56; Princess Kaimana, 46; and the driver, Vinisia Hefa, 36, an East Palo Alto resident.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Tu’ipelehake’s 12- and 34-year-old sons, claims that the sport utility vehicle’s design and manufacture caused the deaths, relinquishing Delgado of blame.

“Ford knew that the Explorer was not equipped to properly handle emergency maneuvers at interstate highway speeds … Although [Delgado] contributed to the crash events with an improper lane change, she did not kill the occupants,” the lawsuit says. It also claims the car roof was not designed to prevent it from crushing passengers in a rollover crash.

Ford representatives did not return calls for comment Tuesday.

In the criminal case, prosecutors contend that Delgado was racing a black Cadillac Escalade as she weaved between lanes before clipping the Explorer. Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe says the lawsuit will not affect the criminal case against Delgado, who faces eight years in prison if convicted.

“This does not affect the criminal trial whatsoever,” Wagstaffe said. “[Delgado] was the one who set everything off in motion. In this case, it would not have happened at all if the vehicle wasn’t clipped in the first place.”

The Ford Explorer was not tested for rollover resistance by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration until 2001, when it received two stars out of five, according to Automobile Magazine. The 2007 Explorer rated three of five stars.

Ford is involved in a class-action lawsuit in Sacramento concerning Explorers that have rolled over. Some attorneys in Houston have created a Web site,

fordexplorerrollover.com, which details a history of lawsuits involving the Explorer. It claims that “Explorer rollover rates rank higher than any of its current competitors.”

bfoley@examiner.com

Bay Area NewsLocal

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