updated 5/2/2004 7:47:45 PM ET 2004-05-02T23:47:45

Ford Motor Co. overruled its own safety engineers’ recommendations to recall up to 4.1 million pickups and sport utility vehicles that they found had substandard door latches, court documents indicated.

A Ford safety engineering team determined in March 2000 that door latches on certain 1997-2000 light trucks didn’t meet federal safety standards. The trucks include the popular F-150, F-250, Expedition and Lincoln Navigator models, according to internal Ford memos made public as part of court cases.

After the recommendations, Ford ordered immediate design changes for future vehicles. But the automaker decided against a recall, which could have cost up to $527 million. The company determined instead that the latches could pass a rarely used alternative compliance test, The Detroit News reported Sunday.

At least 16 product-liability lawsuits filed against the automaker claim that latch failures led to fatal accidents involving doors that flew open. Many have been settled, but others are pending.

Federal safety officials are reviewing allegations that Ford skirted federal laws by failing to recall the 4.1 million vehicles and alert the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the latch issue.

Ford maintains the door latches are safe and in compliance with federal laws.

“Ford’s extensive crash testing of the F-Series truck demonstrates that the doors remain closed during a variety of crashes,” Ford spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes told the paper. Compliance to (federal safety standards), crash testing, and real-world data from years of on-road experience show the vehicles, including the door latches, to be safe.”

Plaintiffs’ lawyers contend the alternative test is not accepted by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. They say the documents show an automaker failing to address a safety issue because of financial concerns.

“It’s clear to me that Ford realized the product was dangerous and should be recalled,” plaintiffs’ attorney Jeff Wigington said.

The internal documents, produced by Ford under court order, emerged in court cases involving deaths and injuries in crashes when vehicle doors have flown open.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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