Ford’s Fiery Pintos Lead to Injuries, Deaths, and Lawsuits

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In 1970, the Ford Motor Company proudly debuted its newest addition to the family: the Pinto.  At first, the Pinto was famous for two reasons: it was small, and it was cheap. Marketed as costing just a dollar per pound, the Pinto’s compact 2,000-pound frame clocked in at a modest $2,000, making the car affordable and popular.  But later, the Pinto would gain a newer, darker sort of fame as one of the worst and most dangerous vehicles ever built.

Marinha Grande, Portugal - February 11: Gonçalo Pinto Participa

Rushed Into Production

In the early 1970s, Lee Iacocca was president of the Ford Motor Company.  Iacocca wanted the company to produce a car that would be cheap and compact.  The result was the Pinto, marketed as “The Little Carefree Car.”  Ironically — and tragically — a car that was intended to capture a youthful, breezy spirit of fun would become inextricably tied to injury, suffering, and death.

The “Little Carefree Car” took less than two years to be conceptualized, designed and put into production — a much more rapid timeline than the 43 months that would normally be taken. In another detail that seems ominous today, the Pinto’s initial release date was September 11.

A Dangerous Design

The Pinto was unique in other ways besides its small size.  To help shave off weight and bulk, the Pinto lacked the traditional bumper that would be used to cushion collisions. While that may have been alright if additional precautions were taken to compensate, just the opposite was true: the gas tank had virtually no reinforcements protecting it.

Taken together, these design choices meant that if a Pinto was ever rear-ended, it was extremely easy for its fuel tank to be punctured and cause a massive fire.  If a fire did occur, occupants were unlikely to escape: the doors had a tendency to jam shut after an impact, often trapping victims inside as the wreck burned.

Flame Background

Deaths and Injuries Lead to Litigation

Before long, the Pinto’s defective design began causing serious injuries — and fatalities.  An official total of 27 deaths was tied to the vehicle, though some estimates are far higher.  Of course, even at the conservative end of the spectrum, 27 preventable fatalities caused by a car with a propensity to explode and burn is still 27 too many.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was critical of the vehicle and was quick to launch an investigation into the Pinto.  While the NHTSA determined in 1974 that a recall was not merited, Ford ultimately issued its own recall in 1978.  The recall affected approximately 1.5 million Pintos with model years from 1971 to 1976 (as well as the similar Mercury Bobcat, from 1975 to 1976).

While the recall finally took unsafe vehicles off the streets, by then it was already too late: the terrible damage had already been done.  An accident in 1972 led to the case of Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Company.  In Grimshaw, a California appellate court upheld an order for $2.5 million in compensatory damages, plus an additional $3.5 million in punitive damages.

Part of the court’s reasoning was that Ford knew about the dangers, but pushed the Pinto onto an unwitting consumer market anyway.  The Ford Company’s cold cost analysis revealed that debuting the hazardous Pinto as-is and simply paying for subsequent lawsuits would be cheaper than making expensive safety modifications.  In other words, Ford decided that profits were all that mattered, and that irreplaceable human life ultimately carried a lower value than an inanimate heap of aluminum, plastic, and glass.

In the aftermath, Lee Iacocca had this to say: “Clamming up is what we did at Ford in the late ’70s when we were bombarded with suits over the Pinto, which was involved in a lot of gas tank fires.  The suits might have bankrupted the company, so we kept our mouths shut for fear of saying anything that just one jury might have construed as an admission of guilt. Winning in court was our top priority; nothing else mattered.”

If you or someone you love was hurt by a defective or dangerous product, you may be entitled to compensation for the damages you’ve suffered.  To schedule a free, confidential consultation with an experienced personal injury lawyer, call our law offices at (215) 246-9000, or contact us online.  We don’t charge a fee unless you win, so call right away to get started.

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