Auto industry cover-ups are not an uncommon occurrence, especially for Ford Motor Company. Ford Motor Company has been under investigation numerous times for holding pertinent information, from the public and from authorities, regarding defective and dangerous products. In fact, it holds quite a history of secrecy and deceit. The company has endured several investigations regarding the continued production and or sale of products with known defects. One of Ford Motor Company's fist major scandals included the Ford Pinto model.
In the 1960's, Ford encountered major competition in the American small-car market. Volkswagen and several Japanese companies had developed some extremely efficient and marketable small cars and Ford was having trouble keeping up. To fight the competition Ford created the Pinto model. Under the direction of Ford executive Lee Iacocca, the Pinto's design began in 1968 and was introduced to the public on September 11, 1970. Lee Iacocca had very strict specifications for the design of the Pinto. The new car was to weigh no more than 2000 lbs and cost no more than $2000, with no exceptions. Any modification that caused the weight or price of the vehicle to surpass Iacocca's specifications was automatically rejected, even if the modification provided better safety for its occupants.
In 1967, the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) issued Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 301 (FMVSS 301) - Fuel System Integrity. This FMVSS was intended to reduce the chances of injury and fatality due to fires which result from motor vehicle crashes. The requirement would have strengthened and protected a vehicle's fuel system in the event of a collision, resulting in a reduction of fuel leakage, fire and occupant injury.
Even though FMVSS 301 was issued in 1967, it was not fully implemented until 1977. Ford Motor Company lobbied with extraordinary vigor and a few boldfaced lies against the new government safety standard. The car company made numerous claims in succession, so that NHTSA could work to disprove only one at a time. According to Mother Jones Magazine, Ford claimed that:
- Statistically, auto fires are such a minor problem that NHTSA should really concern itself with other matters.
- Rear-end collisions are relatively rare.
- The fatalities in the fiery accidents were due to the kinetic force of the impact, not the fire.
- The federal testing criteria was unfair.
- he design changes required to meet the standard would take 43 months.
This technique of succession successfully delayed the full implementation of FMVSS 301 for almost 10 years.
Ford Motor Company had its reasons for delaying FMVSS 301. Before the production of the Pinto, Ford engineers discovered a major defect in the car. It was found that the fuel tanks and filler necks installed on these vehicles were subject to failure when the vehicles were struck from the rear. In nearly all rear-end crash test collisions the Pinto's gas tank would rupture, resulting in fuel leakage. During the collision, the tube leading to the gas-tank cap would be ripped away from the tank itself, and gas would immediately begin pouring onto the road around the car. The spilled fuel in the presence of external ignition sources resulted in numerous fires and explosions.
Ford owned a patent to a much safer gas tank, however, because $200,000 of assembly-line machinery was already tooled when engineers found the defect, top Ford officials decided to manufacture the car without further modifications, knowing the consequences to Pinto occupants in rear-end accidents. The company rushed the new model into production in much less than the usual time. It was assumed to be the shortest production planning period in modern automotive history. The normal time span from conception to production of a new car model was about 43 months in 1968. However, the Pinto schedule was set at less than 25 months.
The shortened time of production, set by Lee Iacocca, resulted in the simultaneous tasks of product development and machine tooling. The completed machines stamp, press and grind metal into the shape of specific car parts. Normally, a car company does not begin tooling machinery until a car's design, styling, product planning, advance engineering, and quality assurance are extremely close to completion. Tooling the machines after the product development stage helps to guarantee that the car's parts will work well together. The machines were already tooled for the Pinto's mass production when Ford discovered that the model's gas tank was extremely vulnerable. The company decided that it was too late to turn back and proceeded with the vehicle's production despite the major safety defect. More than three million Ford Pintos were manufactured from the year 1970 through 1980. No changes were made to the defective gas tank until 1977.
On August 10, 1977, a press conference was held in Washington, D.C. to announce the release of an article entitled, "Pinto Madness." The article was published in the September/October issue of Mother Jones magazine. It made several allegations concerning the lack of safety of the Ford Pinto's fuel tank. This was the first time that the Pinto's defective fuel tank was made widely public.
On September 13, 1977, immediately following the "Pinto Madness" article, NHTSA conducted a formal defect investigation. It was based on the allegations that the design and location of the Ford Pinto fuel tank make the vehicle highly susceptible to fire in on rear impact accidents. NHTSA conducted a crash test program that began on February 1, 1978 as part of the investigation. In nine staged collision tests of 1971-1976 Pinto 2-door sedans and 3-door runabouts, two tests resulted in fires. In all of the remaining seven tests, fuel tank damage occurred with fuel leakage rates ranging from 6 to 700 ounces per minute, with an average rate in excess of 240 ounces per minute.
NHTSA concurred with the allegations made by Mother Jones magazine and concluded that the fuel tank and filler pipe assembly installing in the 1971-1976 Ford Pinto is subject to damage which results in fuel spillage and fire potential in rear impact collisions. From January 1975 through June 1977, 33 fatal Pinto accidents occurred that involved fire. This statistic includes only 2 out of the 12 years that the Pinto was in production. It does not include all the fire related fatalities from years 1970 through 1975. Mother Jones Magazine claimed that Pinto crashes have caused in excess of 500 burn deaths to people who would not have been seriously injured if the car had not burst into flames. In May of 1978, the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced that the Pinto fuel system had a "safety related defect" and called for a recall of 1.5 million Pintos.
The Pinto's exploding Gas Tank was one of Ford Motor Company's first major auto industry cover-ups. Ford's decision to continue the production and sale of the Pinto model, in its defective condition, was decided by the car company's cost-benefit analysis. This analysis is part of a memorandum entitled "Fatalities Associated with Crash-Induced Fuel Leakage and Fires." It estimated the expected costs of producing the Pinto with and without fuel tank modifications:
Estimated costs of producing the Pinto with fuel tank modifications:
- Expected unit sales: 11 million vehicles
- Modification costs per unit: $11.00
- Total Cost: $121 million
Estimated costs of producing the Pinto without fuel tank modifications:
- Expected accident results (assuming 2100 accidents):
180 burn deaths
180 serious burn injuries
2100 burned out vehicles
- Unit costs of accident results (assuming out of court settlements):
$200,000 per burn death
$67,000 per serious injury
$700 per burned out vehicle
- Total Cost: $49.53 million
This cost-benefit analysis weighed the cost of a human life (appraised at $200,000) against the cost of repairing the Pinto fuel tanks (appraised at $11 per vehicle). It argues that it would be more cost efficient to pay fire injury and burn death liability claims then make an $11-per-car improvement. The cost for fixing the Pinto was $121 million, while settling cases where injuries occur was only $50 million. With such a difference in costs, Ford decided to manufacture and market the Pinto without fuel tank modifications.
How could any company compare a human life to a profit margin? Ford Motor Company has made its priorities clear. The company has no regard its customers' safety. By concealing defects, Ford Motor Company profits by avoiding costly emission and safety recalls. In the case of the Pinto, Ford concluded that the more beneficial option was the let its customers die.
How does Ford's former philosophy compare to present day. Didn't we have a huge problem with rollover accidents in the Ford Explorer, Expedition, Excursion and the E350 15-passenger van? Why didn't they install stability controls in the vehicles? What about the weak roofs in these same vehicles that have accounted for hundreds of deaths, when the vehicles rollover and their roof crush in on the occupants, killing and maiming them? Why don't they strengthen the roofs? Did their "cost-benefit analysis" dictate that the company would make more money by forgoing safety and paying personal injury claims?
John Bisnar is a partner at Newport Beach Personal Injury Law Firm Bisnar Chase. The Bisnar Chase law firm has dedicated their practice to victims of serious injuries due to defective products, negligence and malpractice.