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YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS | What's the best way to fight corporate greed?

Ford executives knew the Pinto was a four-wheeled death trap. The company continued to manufacture and sell the deadly vehicles for more than a decade until the cost of settling lawsuits and the attendant negative publicity made the car unprofitable.
davidbetras032020
Attorney David Betras

On Aug. 10, 1978, three teenage girls — sisters Lyn and Judy Ulrich and their cousin,  Donna — traveling to volleyball practice on Route 33 in Goshen, Ind., were incinerated when the gas tank in their 1973 Ford Pinto exploded after the vehicle was rear-ended by a van. 

Technically speaking, they were killed in an auto accident. In reality, however, they were murdered by corporate greed.  

That is because Ford executives, including President Lee Iacocca, knew the Pinto was a four-wheeled death trap. Rushed into production in 1970 after only two years of development and testing, the Pinto was Ford’s response to the influx of foreign-made subcompact cars into the American market that began in the late 1960s. 

During the design process, company engineers sounded alarms about the gas tank which was, for a number of reasons, vulnerable to rupture in low-speed rear end collisions. They were also concerned because a large empty space behind the backseat allowed the entire back third of the car to crumple, wedging the body and frame tightly against the car doors, making them virtually impossible to open. 

Fixing the lethal combination of an exploding gas tank and jammed doors would have cost the company $15 per Pinto. Iacocca’s response: “Safety doesn’t sell.” Not surprisingly, the boss’ attitude permeated the company when attorneys representing people injured and killed in the exploding cars unearthed what became known as the “Pinto Memo.” 

Prepared to help Ford block new fuel system safety standards being proposed by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, the memo’s authors estimated it would cost Ford $11 per vehicle or $137 million to comply with the new regulations. They weighed that against the $50 million in litigation and settlements costs the company would incur if the cars were not made safer. Their conclusion: “… the implementation costs far outweigh the expected benefits.“

And so the company continued to manufacture and sell the deadly vehicles for more than a decade. During that time between 500 and 900 people were burned to death. The Pinto was not pulled from the market until the cost of settling lawsuits filed on behalf of the victims and the attendant negative publicity made the car unprofitable.

I was reminded of the Pinto debacle when I read a New York Times article about a series of accidents caused by Tesla’s autopilot system. The story focused on the death of 22-year-old Naibel Benavides who was killed when a Model S in autopilot mode traveling 66 mph on a city street ran a stop sign and slammed into the parked Chevy Tahoe in which she was sitting. The car’s brakes were never applied.

While a Tesla is as different from a Pinto as the Wright Brothers’ plane is from an F-16, the cause of the crashes that killed the Ulrich’s and Ms. Benavides are the same: placing pursuit of profit ahead of people. Unlike Ford, GM and other carmakers who use technology to restrict their systems to divided highways where there are no stop signs, traffic lights or pedestrians, Tesla allows drivers to use autopilot anywhere and everywhere. The results are predictable and tragic: the number of accidents involving Tesla’s system is skyrocketing. 

And I suspect that lawsuits filed by victims are the only thing that will stop the carnage.

Every time I think of the victims we represent or read reports about companies who place no value on human life, I am reminded of why I went to law school, why I go to work every day and why we should all fight to preserve the civil justice system that makes our world a safer place to live.

—  Attorney David Betras, a senior partner at BetrasKopp & Harshman LLC., directs the firm’s non-litigation activities and practices criminal defense law in both the state and federal courts. He has practiced law for 35 years. Have a legal question you'd like answered here? Send it to news@mahoningmatters.com.

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