Hoffman___The_Ford_Pinto - 222 Corporate Obligations and...

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222 Corporate Obligations and Responsibilities: Everything Old Is New Again Case Study The Ford Pinto W Michael Hoffman On August 10, 1978 a tragic automobile acci- dent occurred on U.S. Highway 33 near Goshen, Indiana. Sisters Judy and Lynn Ul- rich (ages 18 and 16, respectively) and their cousin Donna Ulrich (age 18) were struck from the rear in their 1973 Ford Pinto by a van. The gas tank of the Pinto ruptured, the car burst into flames and the three teen-agers were burned to death. Subsequently an Elkhart County grand jury returned a criminal homicide charge against Ford, the first ever against an Arneri- can corporation. During the following 20- week trial, Judge Harold R. Staffeldt advised the jury that Ford should be convicted of reckless homicide if it were shown that the company had engaged in "plain, conscious and unjustifiable disregard of harm that might result (from its actions) and the disre- gard involves a substantial deviation from ac- ceptable standards of conduct."l The key phrase around which the trial hinged, of course, is "acceptable standards." Did Ford knowingly and recklessly choose profit over safety in the design and placement of the Pinto's gas tank? Elkhart County prosecutor Michael A. Cosentino and chief Ford attor- ney James F. Neal battled dramatically over this issue in a rural Indiana courthouse. Meanwhile, American business anxiously awaited the verdict which could send warn- ing ripples through board rooms across the nation concerning corporate responsibility and product liability. As a background to this trial some discussion of the Pinto controversy is necessary. In 1977 the magazine Mother Jones broke a story by Mark Dowie, general manager of MotherJones business operations, accusing Ford of know- ingly putting on the road an unsafe car-the Pinto-in which hundreds of people have needlessly suffered burn deaths and even more have been scarred and disfigured due to burns. In his article "Pinto Madness', Dowie charges that: Fighting strong competition from Volkswagen for the lucrative small-car market, the Ford Motor Company rushed the Pinto into produc- tion in much less than the usual time. Ford en- gineers discovered in pre-production crash tests that rear-end collisions would rupture the Pinto's fuel system extremely easily. Because assembly-line machinery was already tooled when engineers found this defect, top Ford of- ficials decided to manufacture the car anyway- exploding gas tank and all--even though Ford owned the patent on a much safer gas tank. For more than eight years afterwards, Ford success- fully lobbied, with extraordinary vigor and sorne blatant lies, against a key government safety standard that would have forced the com- pany to change the Pinto's fire-prone gas tank. By conservative estimates Pinto crashes have caused 500 bum deaths to people who would not have been seriously injured if the car had not burst into flames. The figure could be as high as 900. Burning Pintos have become such an embarrassment to Ford that its advertising agenc);, J. Walter Thompson, dropped a line
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Hoffman___The_Ford_Pinto - 222 Corporate Obligations and...

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