$128 Million – Fuel System Fire

A thirteen-year-old boy who suffered severe burns when the 1972 Pinto in which he was a passenger burst into flames in a rear-end collision‚ filed an action against Ford Motor company alleging that defects in the design of the vehicle caused his injuries. In what was the largest verdict ever in a personal injury case‚ an Orange County jury awarded $128 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Company

A 1972 Ford Pinto hatchback automobile unexpectedly stalled on a freeway‚ erupting into flames when it was rear ended by a car proceeding in the same direction. Mrs. Lilly Gray‚ the driver of the Pinto‚ suffered fatal burns and 13-year-old Richard Grimshaw‚ a passenger in the Pinto‚ suffered severe and permanently disfiguring burns on his face and entire body. Grimshaw and the heirs of Mrs. Gray sued Ford Motor Company and others. Following a six-month jury trial‚ verdicts were returned in favor of plaintiffs against Ford Motor Company. Grimshaw was awarded $2‚516‚000 compensatory damages and $125 million punitive damages; the Grays were awarded $559‚680 in compensatory damages. On Ford’s motion for a new trial‚ Grimshaw was required to remit all but $3.5 million of the punitive award as a condition of denial of the motion.

The Accident:

In November 1971‚ the Grays purchased a new 1972 Pinto hatchback manufactured by Ford in October 1971. The Grays had trouble with the car from the outset. During the first few months of ownership‚ they had to return the car to the dealer for repairs a number of times. Their car problems included excessive gas and oil consumption‚ down shifting of the automatic transmission‚ lack of power‚ and occasional stalling. It was later learned that the stalling and excessive fuel consumption were caused by a heavy carburetor float.

On May 28‚ 1972‚ Mrs. Gray‚ accompanied by 13-year-old Richard Grimshaw‚ set out in the Pinto from Anaheim to Barstow to meet Mr. Gray. The Pinto was then 6 months old and had been driven approximately 3‚000 miles. Mrs. Gray stopped in San Bernardino for gasoline‚ got back onto the freeway (Interstate 15) and proceeded toward her destination at 60-65 miles per hour. As she approached the Route 30 off-ramp where traffic was congested‚ she moved from the outer fast lane to the middle lane of the freeway. Shortly after this lane change‚ the Pinto suddenly stalled and coasted to a halt in the middle lane. It was later established that the carburetor float had become so saturated with gasoline that it suddenly sank‚ opening the float chamber and causing the engine to flood and stall. A car traveling immediately behind the Pinto was able to swerve and pass it but the driver of a 1962 Ford Galaxie was unable to avoid colliding with the Pinto. The Galaxie had been traveling from 50 to 55 miles per hour but before the impact had been braked to a speed of from 28 to 37 miles per hour.

Ford Pinto Fuel Fire #1At the moment of impact‚ the Pinto caught fire and its interior was engulfed in flames. According to plaintiffs’ expert‚ the impact of the Galaxie had driven the Pinto’s gas tank forward and caused it to be punctured by the flange or one of the bolts on the differential housing so that fuel sprayed from the punctured tank and entered the passenger compartment through gaps resulting from the separation of the rear wheel well sections from the floor pan. By the time the Pinto came to rest after the collision‚ both occupants had sustained serious burns. When they emerged from the vehicle‚ their clothing was almost completely burned off. Mrs. Gray died a few days later of congestive heart failure as a result of the burns. Grimshaw managed to survive but only through heroic medical measures. He has undergone numerous and extensive surgeries and skin grafts, and must undergo additional surgeries over the next 10 years. He lost portions of several fingers on his left hand and portions of his left ear‚ while his face required many skin grafts from various portions of his body.

Design of the Pinto Fuel System:

In 1968‚ Ford began designing a new subcompact automobile which ultimately became the Pinto. Mr. Iacocca‚ then a Ford vice president‚ conceived the project and was its moving force. Ford’s objective was to build a car at or below 2‚000 pounds to sell for no more than $2‚000.

Ordinarily, marketing surveys and preliminary engineering studies precede the styling of a new automobile line. Pinto‚ however‚ was a rush project‚ so that styling preceded engineering and dictated engineering design to a greater degree than usual. Among the engineering decisions dictated by styling was the placement of the fuel tank. It was then the preferred practice in Europe and Japan to locate the gas tank over the rear axle in subcompacts because a small vehicle has less “crush space” between the rear axle and the bumper than larger cars. The Pinto’s styling‚ however‚ required the tank to be placed behind the rear axle leaving only nine or 10 inches of “crush space” — far less than in any other American automobile or Ford overseas subcompact. In addition‚ the Pinto was designed so that its bumper was little more than a chrome strip‚ less substantial than the bumper of any other American car produced then or later. The Pinto’s rear structure also lacked reinforcing members known as “hat sections” (two longitudinal side members) and horizontal cross-members running between them such as were found in cars of larger unitized construction and in all automobiles produced by Ford’s overseas operations. The absence of the reinforcing members rendered the Pinto less crush resistant than other vehicles. Finally‚ the differential housing selected for the Pinto had an exposed flange and a line of exposed bolt heads. These protrusions were sufficient to puncture a gas tank driven forward against the differential upon rear impact.

Crash Tests:

During the development of the Pinto‚ prototypes were built and tested. Some were “mechanical prototypes” which duplicated mechanical features of the design but not its appearance while others‚ referred to as “engineering prototypes‚” were true duplicates of the design car. These prototypes, as well as two production Pintos, were crash tested by Ford to determine‚ among other things‚ the integrity of the fuel system in rear-end accidents. Ford also conducted the tests to see if the Pinto as designed would meet a proposed federal regulation requiring all automobiles manufactured in 1972 to be able to withstand a 20-mph fixed barrier impact without significant fuel spillage, and all automobiles manufactured after January 1‚ 1973‚ to withstand a 30-mph fixed barrier impact without significant fuel spillage.

The crash tests revealed that the Pinto’s fuel system as designed could not meet the 20-mph proposed standard. Mechanical prototypes struck from the rear with a moving barrier at 21 miles per hour caused the fuel tank to be driven forward and punctured‚ causing fuel leakage in excess of the standard prescribed by the proposed regulation. A production Pinto crash tested at 21 miles per hour into a fixed barrier caused the fuel neck to be torn from the gas tank and the tank to be punctured by a bolt head on the differential housing. In at least one test‚ spilled fuel entered the driver’s compartment through gaps resulting from the separation of the seams joining the rear wheel wells to the floor pan. The seam separation was occasioned by the lack of reinforcement in the rear structure and insufficient welds of the wheel wells to the floor pan.

Tests conducted by Ford on other vehicles‚ including modified or reinforced mechanical Pinto prototypes‚ proved safe at speeds at which the Pinto failed. Where rubber bladders had been installed in the tank‚ crash tests into fixed barriers at 21 mph withstood leakage from punctures in the gas tank. Vehicles with fuel tanks installed above rather than behind the rear axle passed the fuel system integrity test at 31 miles per hour fixed barrier. A Pinto with two longitudinal hat sections added to firm up the rear structure passed a 20-mph rear impact fixed barrier test with no fuel leakage.

The Cost to Remedy Design Deficiencies:

When a prototype failed the fuel system integrity test‚ the standard of care for engineers in the industry was to redesign and retest it. The vulnerability of the production Pinto’s fuel tank at speeds of 20- and 30-mph fixed barrier tests could have been remedied by inexpensive “fixes‚” but Ford produced and sold the Pinto to the public without doing anything to remedy the defects. Design changes that would have enhanced the integrity of the fuel tank system at relatively little cost per car included the following: Longitudinal side members and cross members at $2.40 and $1.80‚ respectively; a single shock absorbant “flak suit” to protect the tank at $4; a tank within a tank and placement of the tank over the axle at $5.08 to $5.79; a nylon bladder within the tank at $5.25 to $8; placement of the tank over the axle surrounded with a protective barrier at a cost of $9.95 per car; substitution of a rear axle with a smooth differential housing at a cost of $2.10; imposition of a protective shield between the differential housing and the tank at $2.35; improvement and re-enforcement of the bumper at $2.60; addition of eight inches of crush space a cost of $6.40. Equipping the car with a reinforced rear structure‚ smooth axle‚ improved bumper and additional crush space at a total cost of $15.30 would have made the fuel tank safe in a 34- to 38-mph rear-end collision by a vehicle the size of the Ford Galaxie. If‚ in addition to the foregoing‚ a bladder or tank within a tank were used or if the tank were protected with a shield‚ it would have been safe in a 40- to 45-mph rear impact. If the tank had been located over the rear axle‚ it would have been safe in a rear impact at 50 mph or more.

Management’s Decision to Go Forward With Knowledge of Defects:

The idea for the Pinto‚ as has been noted‚ was conceived by Mr. Iacocca‚ then executive vice president of Ford. The feasibility study was conducted under the supervision of Mr. Robert Alexander‚ vice president of car engineering, and Ford’s Product Planning Committee whose members included Mr. Iacocca‚ Mr. Robert Alexander‚ and Mr. Harold MacDonald. Ford’s group vice president of car engineering approved the Pinto’s concept and made the decision to go forward with the project. During the course of the project‚ regular product review meetings were held, which were chaired by Mr. MacDonald and attended by Mr. Alexander. As the project approached actual production‚ the engineers responsible for the components of the project “signed off” to their immediate supervisors who in turn “signed off” to their superiors and so on up the chain of command until the entire project was approved for public release by Vice Presidents Alexander and MacDonald, and ultimately by Mr. Iacocca. The Pinto crash tests results had been forwarded up the chain of command to the ultimate decision-makers and were known to the Ford officials who decided to go forward with production.

Harley Copp‚ a former Ford engineer and executive in charge of the crash testing program‚ testified that the highest level of Ford’s management made the decision to go forward with the production of the Pinto knowing that the gas tank was vulnerable to puncture and rupture at low rear impact speeds creating a significant risk of death or injury from fire and knowing that “fixes” were feasible at nominal cost. He testified that management’s decision was based on the cost savings which would inure from omitting or delaying the “fixes.”

Mr. Copp’s testimony concerning management’s awareness of the crash tests results and the vulnerability of the Pinto fuel system was corroborated by other evidence. At an April 1971 product review meeting chaired by Mr. MacDonald‚ those present received and discussed a report (exhibit 125) prepared by Ford engineers pertaining to the financial impact of a proposed federal standard on fuel system integrity and the cost savings which would accrue from deferring even minimal “fixes.” The report refers to crash tests of the integrity of the fuel system of Ford vehicles and design changes needed to meet anticipated federal standards. Also in evidence was a September 23‚ 1970‚ report (exhibit 124) by Ford’s “Chassis Design Office” concerning a program “to establish a corporate [Ford] position and reply to the government” on the proposed federal fuel system integrity standard which included zero fuel spillage at 20-mph fixed barrier crash by January 1‚ 1972‚ and 30-mph by January 1‚ 1973. The report states in part: “The 20- and 30-mph rear fixed barrier crashes will probably require repackaging the fuel tanks in a protected area such as above the rear axle. This is based on moving barrier crash tests of a Chevelle and a Ford at 30 mph and other Ford products at 20 mph. Currently there are no plans for forward models to repackage the fuel tanks. Tests must be conducted to prove that repackaged tanks will live without significantly strengthening rear structure for added protection.” The report also notes that the Pinto was the “[smallest] car line with most difficulty in achieving compliance.” It is reasonable to infer that the report was prepared for and known to Ford officials in policy-making positions.

The fact that two of the crash tests were run at the request of the Ford chassis and vehicle engineering department for the specific purpose of demonstrating the advisability of moving the fuel tank over the axle as a possible “fix” further corroborated Mr. Copp’s testimony that management knew the results of the crash tests. Mr. Kennedy‚ who succeeded Mr. Copp as the engineer in charge of Ford’s crash testing program‚ admitted that the test results had been forwarded up the chain of command to his superiors.

Finally‚ Mr. Copp testified to conversations in late 1968 or early 1969 with the chief assistant research engineer in charge of cost-weight evaluation of the Pinto‚ and to a later conversation with the chief chassis engineer who was then in charge of crash testing the early prototype. In these conversations‚ both men expressed concern about the integrity of the Pinto’s fuel system and complained about management’s unwillingness to deviate from the design if the change would cost money.

The Ford Pinto verdict was recognized by the Association of Trial Lawyers of America as one of the ten most significant civil trials of the past millennium.