Ford Pinto Safety Problems
Through early production of the model, [the Pinto] became a focus of a major scandal when it was alleged that the car’s design allowed its fuel tank to be easily damaged in the event of a rear-end collision which sometimes resulted in deadly fires and explosions. Critics argued that the vehicle’s lack of a true rear bumper as well as any reinforcing structure between the rear panel and the tank, meant that in certain collisions, the tank would be thrust forward into the differential, which had a number of protruding bolts that could puncture the tank. This, and the fact that the doors could potentially jam during an accident (due to poor reinforcing) made the car a potential deathtrap.
Ford was allegedly aware of this design flaw but refused to pay what was characterized as the minimal expense of a redesign. Instead, it was argued, Ford decided it would be cheaper to pay off possible lawsuits for resulting deaths. Mother Jones magazine obtained the cost-benefit analysis Ford had used to compare the cost of an $11 repair against the cost of paying off potential law suits. The characterization of Ford’s design decision as gross disregard for human lives in favor of profits led to major lawsuits, inconclusive criminal charges, and a costly recall of all affected Pintos. Ford lost several million dollars and gained a reputation for manufacturing “the barbecue that seats four.”
The cynical way of calculating costs of settlements against the costs of a recall is thematized in the novel Fight Club and its movie adaption, but economists note that cost-benefit analysis is the only possible way of measuring whether safety measures are worthwhile. For example, all automobiles would be safer if they were limited to go no faster than fifteen miles per hour, but they would be far less useful or desirable in such circumstances, so that safety measure is not taken, even though thousands of lives a year are lost as a result.
The most famous Ford Pinto product liability case resulted in a judicial opinion that is a staple of remedies courses in American law schools. In Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co. , 119 Cal. App. 3d 757 (4th Dist. 1981) , the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District reviewed Ford’s conduct in painstaking detail, and upheld compensatory damages of $2.5 million and punitive damages of $3.5 million against Ford. It also upheld the judge’s reduction of the punitive damages from the jury’s original verdict of $125 million. Of the two plaintiffs, one was killed in the collision that caused her Pinto to explode, and her passenger, 13-year old Richard Grimshaw, was badly burned and scarred for life.
More recently, it has been argued (in a well-known 1991 law review paper by Gary Schwartz , among others) that the case against the Pinto was less clear-cut than commonly supposed. Only 27 people ever died in Pinto fires. Given the Pinto’s production figures (over 2 million built), this was no worse than typical for the time, and far less than the “hundreds” claimed by the consumer safety advocates whose allegations are largely responsible for the reputation of the vehicle. Schwartz argues that the car was no more fire-prone than other cars of the time, and that the supposed “smoking gun” document showing Ford’s callousness actually referred to the auto industry in general rather than the Pinto specifically.
Due to the alleged engineering, safety, and reliability problems, Forbes Magazine included the Pinto on its list of the worst cars of all time. Ironically Ford had originally planned to include an inexpensive rubber bladder inside the gas tank that would have prevented most of the explosive crashes that plagued the car’s run; in addition, Ford had also planned to include revolutionary dual front air bags. The addition of these two safety features would have added a few hundred dollars to the $2000 base price of the vehicle but would have probably made it a much safer vehicle. However, it is quite possible Ford would not have sold over two million of the modified car due to the substantial increase in price and may or may not have made less profit. The Pinto was once referred to as “the car nobody loved, but everybody bought”.