Jury in Pinto Crash Case: ‘We Wanted Ford to Take Notice’
Posted in on June 29, 2018
Andrew Quinn, a retired policeman, had to give up golf temporarily for jury duty. Ford Motor Co. wishes he had stayed on the links.
Last week, jury foreman Quinn read in state Superior Court here a verdict assessing $125 million in punitive damages against Ford in a case involving the rupour and explosion of the fuel tank on a 1975 Pinto. The car, stalled on a freeway, was struck in the rear by another car six years ago.
The verdict, reached in only a day and a half of jury deliberations after a six-month trial, is the largest punitive award ever made by a jury in a personat-injury case, according to lawyers who specialize in the field. “We came up with this high amount so that Ford wouldn’t design cars this way again,” says foreman Quinn, who describes the Pinto as “a lousy and unsafe product.” The jury, he says, wanted a punishment severe enough to sting the big auto maker.
It did. Ford calls the verdict “so unreasonable and unwarranted that it won’t be upheld” and plans to ask the judge to overturn it. The award was so big that it even stunned attorneys for the plaintiff who won it: Richard Grimshaw, now 19 years old who was burned over 90% of his body and lost his nose, left ear and much of his left hand in the flames. (He has undergone some 60 operations to alleviate the damage.) The Pinto’s driver, 52-year-old Lily Gray, the only other person in the car, died of her burns. The jury awarded an additional $3.5 million in compensatory damages to Grimshaw and to Gray’s relatives, for a total of $128.5 million.
The massive punitive award may well be thrown out or trimmed back. But the reasoning used by the jurors in arriving at it, and their emotional reaction to evidence produced by Ford itself, suggest that manufacturers of all kinds of products may be in for an increasingly tough time in personal injury cases.
Jurors mulled the results of five pre-1972 Ford fuel-tank tests; the tanks on experimentally crashed Pintos showed significant damage and leakage in each case. Juror C. V. Greene, a telephone-company dispatcher, was especially struck by a Ford film of a Pinto backed into a wall at 20 miles an hour in the final test before the Pinto was introduced to the public in 1970. The gas tank, filled with a nonflammable substance, ruptured with such force, Greene says, that “it looked like a fireman had stuck a hose inside the car and turned it on.”
Greene wondered what would have happened if the fluid had been gasoline and passengers were inside. “In my mind,” he says, “that film beat the Ford Motor Co.”
Foreman Quinn was impressed by the testimony of a retired Ford designer. Harley Copp, who was called by plaintiffs’ attorneys to explain how company executives balance safety and cost factors in designing a car. Copp, a critic of the Pinto fueltank design, referred to Ford documents indicating that the company could save $20.9 million if it delayed making tank improvements for two years.
All this convinced jurors that Ford had known the design was dangerous and retained it anyway in order to save money. “Ford knew people would be killed,” declares juror David Blodgett, who works for Western Electric Co. and who is the only member of the panel who drives a Pinto. (He says he’ll keep his 1974 model anyway. Ford said in court that it has made several gas-tank changes in recent years; the most significant change was mandated by new federal standards taking effect with 1977 models.)
Ford’s own records, obtained by the plaintiffs’ attorneys in discovery proceedings, indicated that the company could have given the gas tank extra protection with metal and plastic for about $10 to $15 a car, but declined to do so for cost and weight-saving reasons.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that when Detroit introduced small cars to compete with cheaper, lighter-weight European models, it saved money by placing the gas tank behind the rear axle, making it vulnerable to even low-speed collisions. “The Pinto was the worst,” says Mark Robinson Jr., one attorney for Grimshaw. “The tank was only 3 1/4 inches behind the differential housing, and in a crash the housing works like a can opener.”
Ford’s trial argument was that hte Pinto was hit at 50 miles an hour, and that, at the speed, the fuel-system design of any subcompact car, including the Pinto, could not have withstood the impact. But jurors believed, instead, that the collision was at much lower speed, and that the victims would have escaped uninjured had it not been for the fire.
Judge Leonard Goldstein instructed the jurors that they could vote punitive damages only if they believed that the evidence showed Ford had intentionally caused the injuries, or had willfully disregarded safety. By then most jurors had concluded that the auto maker belonged in the second category.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys had asked for a punitive award of $100 million, the amount they estimated Ford had saved by retaining the allegedly defective design on Pintos and other small-car models from the time they were introduced until the federally mandated standards took effect on 1977 cars. In the first round of deliberations, two jurors were opposed to punitive damages, foreman Quinn says. Of the remainder, eight were “in the ballpark” of $100 million, one wanted to assess $20.9 million, and another $500 million.
Greene, impressed by that last juror’s argument recalls bringing up the $125 million figure himself. He reasoned that if Ford had saved $100 million by not installing safe tanks, an award matching that wouldn’t really be punitive. So he added $25 million. Eight of the nine others voting for punitive damages agreed, and the jury’s job was over; in California, only nine members of a panel need to agree on the amount of damages.
Ford says that it has lost three other Pinto fuel-tank-fire cases in recent years – the largest a $3 million 1976 award in Florida that is being appealed – but that the Grimshaw case is the first in which punitive damages have been levied.
Ford is soon expected to report fourth quarter profit of $380 million to $395 million. Thus, the jury award is about equal to Ford’s profit for one recent month.
Some of the jurors themselves concede that their verdict is likely to be pruned back, but they still feel that it was the proper one and that it was dictated by the evidence. “We wanted Ford to take notice,” foreman Quinn says. “I think they’ve noticed.” CAPTION: Picture, Jury cited faulty design of Pintos, which began rolling off assembly lines in 1971, in awarding $125 million damages. AP