A Dangerous Product
On 10 August 1978 Judy Ann Ulrich, eighteen, was driving a 1973 Ford Pinto to volley-ball practice in Goshen, Indiana. Inside the car with her were her sister Lynn Marie, sixteen, and their cousin Donna Ulrich, eighteen. As they were heading north on U.S. Route 33, their car was struck from behind by a 1972 Chevrolet van. The Pinto collapsed like an accordion; the fuel tank ruptured; and the car exploded in flames. Lynn Marie and Donna burned to death in the car. Judy Ann was pulled from the wreckage but died from her injuries several hours later at a hospital. Two months earlier, Ford had recalled all Pintos produced from 1971 to 1976 to repair their defective gas tanks. The recall effort by Ford only came after it was revealed that more than fifty people had died in Pinto-related accidents. What Was Wrong?
The recall of Ford Pintos only came about after news reports of the cars' propensity to explode in flames after rear-end accidents had caused sales of the car to take a dramatic nosedive. That, when combined with the verdicts that were starting to be handed down against Ford, finally turned the company's attention to its bottom line: profitability. Prior to the crash that killed the Ulrichs, a California judge had awarded $6.3 million to a youth who suffered burns in a Pinto crash. Fifty or so other lawsuits were pending as well. In a pending criminal action filed in relation to the Ulrich accident, prosecutor Michael Consentino hoped to prove that Ford officials knew of the likelihood that early Pinto gas tanks may rupture after a rear-end collision. Rather than install a part costing 16.65 to help prevent such an occurrence, Consentino believed that company officials performed a cost-benefit analysis of the situation and determined that a higher profit would be achieved from not installing the part in relation to any foreseeable harm that might be caused. What Worried Ford
After paying out millions of dollars in settlements and jury verdicts, Ford faced a maximum penalty of $30,000 in fines if convicted of criminal charges of reckless homicide in the deaths of the Ulrich girls. So why did it budget $1 million to defend itself? Prior to the filing of criminal charges, Ford was at risk for actual damages suffered by those killed or injured by using its products. Examples of such injuries would be lost wages, permanent disability, pain and suffering, or loss of consortium (losing the companionship of an injured or killed parent or spouse). If, however, the Ford Motor Company was found guilty of reckless homicide in knowingly introducing a product into the marketplace, where it could reasonably be foreseen that great harm or death might result, then the company would be opening itself up to judges or juries assessing punitive damages against it in the nearly forty Pinto cases still pending at that time. Punitive damages, legally speaking, are the court's way of punishing a person or company for knowingly engaging in behavior that is foreseeably dangerous to another. By allowing punitive damages to be assessed in future cases, the courts would be sending a message to Ford that they had better not engage in such conduct in the future. What worried the company was that punitive damages can be in any amount a jury might feel necessary to send such a message. Conceivably, the message sent could be in the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. Victory—But for Whom?
The prosecution produced witnesses at trial who testified that the Ulrich Pinto had been moving at between 15-35 MPH when struck from behind. At that speed a fuel tank should not rupture. The defense produced two witnesses who testified that before she died, Judy Ann Ulrich had said her car was not moving when it was struck at about 50 MPH, an impact that no subcompact could withstand. The jury took twenty-five hours to conclude that Ford should be exonerated of the charges. While Ford officials celebrated the...