The Case of the Exploding Pinto

A by-product of the industrial age are accidents by companies seeking to create wealth for themselves. Both hiring workers, and selling products creates a question of who is responsible for the safety of working conditions and products. And more important, who is responsible when a product fails, or an accident happens? Is it the person who buys or sells the product? Is it the responsibility of the company who buys or sells labor? Or is it the responsibility of the consumer?

A particularly well-known story of product safety is that of the Ford Pinto. This was made particularly famous when in a seven-page cost-benefit analysis done by Ford Motor Company valued human lives at $200,000 and concluded that it was cheaper to be sued by the predicted 180 burn fatalities, and 180 serious burn victims, than make an $11 design modifications on a predicted 11 million cars. Indeed, the lawsuit estimated that lawsuits would cost $49.5 million which was far less than the $137 million needed to re-design and retrofit the popular low-cost car (Strobel 1980:286).

Local governments wrestled with questions of product liability in the way they administer civil and criminal law. For the Pinto, the best example of this occurred, in August 1978, when three Indiana girls died in an accident in which their Pinto was rear-ended by Robert Duggar. Duggar, who had a poor record of driving, as well as open alcohol containers in the vehicle was not charged in the accident. But then the Elkhart County District Attorney Michael Cosentino took an unusual step. There had already been wide publicity regarding the dangers created by the design of the Pinto’s gas tank. Indeed, investigative reporting by Mother Jones magazine in 1977 had revealed that there was a bolt protruding from the axle which punctured the gas tank in the event of a rear-end collision. This design flaw meant that many low impact accidents resulted in lethal explosions, even when the collision was a low speed. Cossentino, pointed out that since the Ford Motor Company was well-aware of this flaw, they could be tried for manslaughter. And under Indiana law this was possible.

The Exploding Pinto

In August 1978, Judy Ulrich drove the Pinto she had bought with her father as a high school graduation present. She had graduated from high school that year, and was on her way to a volleyball game at a church some 20 miles away. She stopped to fill the gas tank of her Pinto, but in leaving the filling station, apparently drove off with the gas cap still on top of the car. The gas cap fell off as she pulled onto the highway. Judy made a U-turn on the Highway, and slowly drove back, looking for her gas cap. Apparently after spotting it by the side of the highway, she slowed. As she slowed, the van driven by 21 year-old Robert Duggar came up behind on the slowing Pinto at 50 mph, well within the speed limit. The van struck hard at the Pinto. The gas tank was forced onto into a protruding bolt on the rear axle which punched a 2 ½ inch hole in the just-filled 11 gallon gas tank. Gas splashed into the passenger compartment, and before the vehicles had come to a stop it exploded.

The Trials of Ford Motor Company

The death of the three Ulrich girls in the Pinto mystified Cosentino and his staff. Six months earlier, one of the investigative staff had read an article about the dangers inherent to the design of the Pinto gas tank in an article published in the September-October 1977 issue of Mother Jones. The article ”Pinto Madness” detailed how the Ford Motor ignored engineers concerns about the safe design of the rear-mounted fuel tank in order to accommodate a corporate goal of producing a 2,000 pound car for less than $2,000, The article indicated further that a follow-up study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that 38 cases of rear-end collisions with Pintos resulted in 27 deaths. Of these deaths 26 died as a result of damaged gas tanks with subsequent fires. Subsequent safety tests conducted by the National Highway Safety and Transportation Administration (NHTSA) revealed that an impact of 35 mph or greater was likely to result in a burst gas tank, and the immolation of any occupants in the vehicle compartment. Subsequently in February 1978, a California jury awarded $128 million in civil damages in an accident involving a 1972 Pinto (the verdict was eventually overturned, and Ford paid only $3.5 million). On June 9, 1978, two months before the Ulriches accident Ford finally announced a recall of the 1.5 million Pintos then on the road.

The death of the Ulrich girls created a legal conundrum for the conservative Republican prosecutor. He could do nothing, and permit the case to go to civil court as it had in the past. Judging from past awards, the girls’ parents would problem win a judgment against Ford Motor Company; he could prosecute Duggar for manslaughter, on the grounds that his reckless behavior had led to the death of the girls. Or, he could try a novel approach, and make a criminal charge against the Ford Motor Company and its executives by making the argument that in ignoring the obvious faults of the Pinto, Ford had committed “reckless homicide.” In other words, without Ford’s recklessness and disregard for consumer’s lives, the accident would not have been fatal..

The Elkhart County Grand Jury gave Cosentino what he had asked for: an indictment of the Ford Motor Company for reckless homicide. The indictment sent a shiver through corporate America. This happened because while the maximum criminal penalty for Ford was a trivial $30,000, executives could in the future be held criminally liable for financial decisions leading to the deaths of consumers.

The Trial of the Ford Motor Company for Manslaughter

At the trial, the expensive legal team for the Ford Motor Company chipped away at the charges. The judge limited the question of recklessness to whether Ford had been too slow in pursuing the recall in the 41 days between the recall and the accident which killed the Ulrich girls. Ford also made the claim that if there was to be criminal liability, it was not the Ford Motor Company which made a product, but the driver of the van who collided with the Pinto, Robert Duggar.

After days of difficult deliberation, the jury returned a unanimous verdict which declared Ford Motor Company to be not guilty of the criminal charges brought by Cosentino. Members of the jury later indicated that although they thought Ford had been negligent, their decision-making did not rise to a level under which a conviction was possible under Indiana’s homicide statute.

How are Decisions Made about Product Safety?

Despite the acquittal in criminal court, a “Pinto Narrative” quickly emerged as being paradigmatic of corporate preference for profits over human life. Like high profile domestic violence cases, the case changed the nature of the running conversation about who is really responsible for death. Despite the courtroom loss, books, articles, and texts continue to hold up the case as the type of conscious decision-making which results in victimization in the pursuit of profit. Provocatively though, sociologists Lee and Erman (1999) called this assumption into question, pointing that “decision makers” working in a corporate environment do not make conscious decisions to market an “unsafe vehicle.” Rather they assert that such amoral calculations emerge not as a result of legal intent, which implies conscious decision-making, but in the context of broader institutional forces which emerge from the institutional cultures (in this case Ford), and the automobile industry in general. What this means of course is court proceedings which probe the minds of individual decision-makers may not be adequate for exploring how decisions leading to a great deal of human suffering occur.

This thesis is important for understanding not only how product safety decisions are made, but how any type of corporate decision-making resulting in death is evaluated. Simply put, correcting the decision making of individuals through the application of criminal law does not by itself result in more moral decisions. Attention has to be paid to the context—that it the ecology—of decision-making.

Further Reading

Lee, Matthew T., and M. David Ermann (1999) “Pinto ‘Madness’ as a Flawed Landmark Narrative: An Organizational and network Analysis.” Social Problems 46 (No 1).

Strobel, Lee Patrick (1980). Reckless Homicide? Ford’s Pinto Trial. South Bend, Indiana: And Books.

Dowie, Mark (1977). “Pinto Madness.” Mother Jones. September/October 1977.

 When Killing is a crime

Excerpt from When Killing is a Crime by Tony Waters, Lynne Ripener Publishers, 2007, pp. 248-250.