Ford Pinto Fuel Tank
The Center for Auto Safety is the nation’s premier independent, member driven, non-profit consumer advocacy organization dedicated to improving vehicle safety, quality, and fuel economy on behalf of all drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.
On June 9, 1978, Ford Motor Company agreed to recall 1.5 million Ford Pinto and 30,000 Mercury Bobcat sedan and hatchback models for fuel tank design defects which made the vehicles susceptible to fire in the event of a moderate-speed rear end collision. The action was the result of investigations by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Office of Defect Investigations (Case Recall C7-38), sparked by a petition from the Center for Auto Safety, publicity generated by a national publication expose of the hazard (Mother Jones News Magazine, “Pinto Madness” by Mark Dowie, Sept/Oct, 1977). The action was also spurred by publicity over the largest punitive damages awarded by a California jury to a young man who had been severely injured in a Pinto fuel tank fire (Grimshaw v Ford).
In April, 1974, the Center for Auto Safety petitioned NHTSA to recall Ford Pintos due to defects in the design of the strap on gas tank which made it susceptible to leakage and fire in low to moderate speed collisions. The Center’s petition was based upon reports from attorneys of three deaths and 4 serious injuries in such accidents. This petition languished in the NHTSA offices until 1977.
In 1977, Mark Dowie of Mother Jones Magazine using documents in the Center files, published an article reporting the dangers of the fuel tank design, and cited internal Ford Motor Company documents that proved that Ford knew of the weakness in the fuel tank before the vehicle was placed on the market but that a cost/benefit study was done which suggested that it would be “cheaper” for Ford to pay liability for burn deaths and injuries rather than modify the fuel tank to prevent the fires in the first place. Dowie showed that Ford owned a patent on a better designed gas tank at that time, but that cost and styling considerations ruled out any changes in the gas tank design of the Pinto.
Closely following the publication of the Mother Jones article, a jury in Orange County, Calif., awarded Richard Grimshaw $125 million in punitive damages for injuries he sustained while a passenger in a 1971 Pinto which was struck by another car at an impact speed of 28MPH and burst into flames. Although the award was eventually reduced to $3.5 million by the trial judge, the jury’s reason for the figure of $125 million was that Ford Motor Company had marketed the Pinto with full knowledge that injuries such as Grimshaw’s were inevitable in the Pinto and therefore the punitive damages should be more than Ford had made in profit on the Pinto since its introduction, which was $124 million. Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co.
With the publication of the Mother Jones article and the Grimshaw case publicity, the Center for Auto Safety resubmitted its petition for a defects investigation into the Pinto and ODI Case Recall C7-38 was opened. ODI had crash tests done of 1971-76 Pintos, sedan, hatchback (“Runabout”) and station wagon models, and the results showed significant fuel tank ruptures and leakage, in one case after an impact of 30.31 MPH the entire contents of the fuel tank leaked out of the 1976 Pinto in less than one minute. (Investigative Report, Phrase I, C7-38, 1971-76 Ford Pinto and 1975-76 Mercury Bobcat, May, 1978.)
Although the first Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 301 for fuel system integrity took effect January 1, 1968, the standard only required passenger cars to meet a 30-mph fixed front barrier crash. There was no requirement for side or rear impacts allowing Ford to claim the Pinto met all applicable safety standards for fuel system integrity. Not until the 1977 model year did the Pinto and other passenger cars have to meet a 30-mph rear moving barrier and a 20-mph side moving barrier test. Light trucks and vans got until the 1978 model year to meet side and rear impact requirements. 39 FR 10588 (Mar. 21, 1974).
Based upon the tests performed for NHTSA and by the tremendous publicity generated over the problem, Ford agreed to recall all 1971 through 1976 Ford Pintos and 1975-76 Mercury Bobcat sedan and hatchback models for modifications to the fuel tank. The modifications included a longer fuel filler neck and a better clamp to keep it securely in the fuel tank, a better gas cap in some models, and placement of a plastic shield between the front of the fuel tank and the differential to protect the tank from the nuts and bolts on the differential and another along the right corner of the tank to protect it from the right rear shock absorber. Recall notices were mailed in September, 1978 and parts were to be at all dealers by September 15, 1978. However, between June 9, 1978, and the date when parts were available to repair the estimated 2.2 million vehicles, six people died in Pinto fires after a rear impact.
In one of the instances, an Elkhart, Indiana grand jury returned indictments against Ford Motor Company for three cases of negligence from the deaths of three young women. But on March 13, 1980, a jury found Ford innocent of a charge of failing to warn about or offer to repair fuel system defects in the Pinto before the day the three women were fatally burned. The verdict is not an unfavorable precedent with regard to criminal prosecution of corporations for defective products that kill. Despite numerous mitigating circumstances in the Pinto case–speeding van, hazardous highway, driver in possession of alcohol and illegal drugs, the exclusion of evidence from the NHTSA investigation including the crash tests, the inclusion into evidence of Ford’s exculpatory crash tests, and a local prosecutor with minimal resources–the possibility of successful corporate criminal liability suits in the future remains open.