They knew it could happen, but after crunching the numbers, the men Ayn Rand devotees would call society's producers decided that profit maximization required letting it happen:
On May 28, 1972, Mrs. Gray, accompanied by 13-year-old Richard Grimshaw, set out in the Pinto from Anaheim for Barstow to meet Mr. Gray. The Pinto was then 6 months old and had been driven approximately 3,000 miles. Mrs. Gray stopped in San Bernardino for gasoline, got back onto the freeway (Interstate 15) and proceeded toward her destination at 60-65 miles per hour. As she approached the Route 30 off-ramp where traffic was congested, she moved from the outer fast lane to the middle lane of the freeway. Shortly after this lane change, the Pinto suddenly stalled and coasted to a halt in the middle lane. It was later established that the carburetor float had become so saturated with gasoline that it suddenly sank, opening the float chamber and causing the engine to flood and stall. A car traveling immediately behind the Pinto was able to swerve and pass it but the driver of a 1962 Ford Galaxie was unable to avoid colliding with the Pinto. The Galaxie had been traveling from 50 to 55 miles per hour but before the impact had been braked to a speed of from 28 to 37 miles per hour.
At the moment of impact, the Pinto caught fire and its interior was engulfed in flames. According to plaintiffs' expert, the impact of the Galaxie had driven the Pinto's gas tank forward and caused it to be punctured by the flange or one of the bolts on the differential housing so that fuel sprayed from the punctured tank and entered the passenger compartment through gaps resulting from the separation of the rear wheel well sections from the floor pan. By the time the Pinto came to rest after the collision, both occupants had sustained serious burns. When they emerged from the vehicle, their clothing was almost completely burned off. Mrs. Gray died a few days later of congestive heart failure as a result of the burns. Grimshaw managed to survive but only through heroic medical measures.Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co., (1981) 119 Cal. App. 3d 757. In 1978, the jury in Grimshaw's case slapped Ford with a $125 million punitive damages award, which was later reduced to $3.1 million. On appeal, the punitive damages were affirmed because:
the conduct of Ford's management was reprehensible in the extreme. It exhibited a conscious and callous disregard of public safety in order to maximize corporate profits. Ford's self-evaluation of its conduct is based on a review of the evidence most favorable to it instead of on the basis of the evidence most favorable to the judgment. Unlike malicious conduct directed toward a single specific individual, Ford's tortious conduct endangered the lives of thousands of Pinto purchasers.The story of the Ford Pinto is much more than an historical anecdote about a dangerous product. It is an illustration of just how flawed the Randian approach to society's "producers" is and a prediction of what the GOP generally, and a Romney/Ryan administration in particular, would inflict on the rest of us for the sake of corporate interests.
Lee Iacocca, then an executive vice president with Ford, came up with the idea for the Pinto in 1968 to compete with small cars like the Volkswagon Beetle and the increasingly popular Japanese imports. Iacocca mandated that the Pinto exceed neither $2,000 nor 2,000 pounds. In addition, according to a 1977 investigative piece by Mother Jones:
Lee Iococca wanted that little car in the showrooms of America with the 1971 models. So he ordered his engineering vice president, Bob Alexander, to oversee what was probably the shortest production planning period in modern automotive history. The normal time span from conception to production of a new car model is about 43 months. The Pinto schedule was set at just under 25.The drastic reduction in that timeframe meant that Ford would be testing the Pinto while retooling its factories to build the car. When Ford conducted crash tests on the Pinto, as the Grimshaw court tells us, it learned that the Pinto had serious problems:
The crash tests revealed that the Pinto's fuel system as designed could not meet the 20-mile-per-hour proposed standard. Mechanical prototypes struck from the rear with a moving barrier at 21 miles per hour caused the fuel tank to be driven forward and to be punctured, causing fuel leakage in excess of the standard prescribed by the proposed regulation. A production Pinto crash tested at 21 miles per hour into a fixed barrier caused the fuel neck to be torn from the gas tank and the tank to be punctured by a bolt head on the differential housing. In at least one test, spilled fuel entered the driver's compartment through gaps resulting from the separation of the seams joining the rear wheel wells to the floor pan. The seam separation was occasioned by the lack of reinforcement in the rear structure and insufficient welds of the wheel wells to the floor pan.
(At about 0:50 of the video above you can see the fuel bursting from the rear of the Pinto.)
Ford knew it could have made changes to the Pinto that would have made it much safer, all of which carried a relatively low price tag of about $5.00 to $11.00 per car. But Ford then compared what it estimated would be the cost of compensating the dead and injured:
Based on the numbers Ford used, the cost would have been $137 million versus the $49.5 million price tag put on the deaths, injuries, and car damages, and thus Ford felt justified not implementing the design change.(Source) Unfazed by the fact that they were contemplating people being literally burned alive, Iacocca and other Ford executives decided that, on balance, it was cheaper to press on with the Pinto as is.
Harley Copp, a former Ford engineer and executive in charge of the crash testing program, testified that the highest level of Ford's management made the decision to go forward with the production of the Pinto, knowing that the gas tank was vulnerable to puncture and rupture at low rear impact speeds creating a significant risk of death or injury from fire and knowing that "fixes" were feasible at nominal cost. He testified that management's decision was based on the cost savings which would inure from omitting or delaying the "fixes."
See Grimshaw. Ford issued a recall in 1978 and in 1980 the Pinto was taken out of production. The company paid out millions of dollars in lawsuits and, in Indiana, it was even indicted on homicide charges in the deaths of three teenage girls who burned to death after their Pinto was hit from behind. The blow to Ford's reputation was as substantial as it was deserved.
So, how is the story of the Ford Pinto, which is older than some Kossacks, bear on today's GOP? There are three responses to this question.
The first response is that the Pinto reveals the lie that is the "Atlas Shrugged" portrayal of Rand's theory of objectivism. Rand had the luxury of creating her protagonists and the challenges they confronted, allowing her to imbue them with an immense amount of integrity. Hank Reardon's innovative new steel, for example, was awesome because Rand made it awesome. She didn't allow for the possibility that Reardon would make, and Dagny Taggart would use for new railroad tracks, a defective product that killed innocent people who couldn't have known the risks. Indeed, the consuming public doesn't factor into "Atlas Shrugged" at all.
Regarding the antagonists in that story, the flaws run even deeper. Rand didn't create market competitors against whom the integrity of Taggart and Reardon could be compared, but a strange bunch of executives who went along with an equally strange, government sponsored program that was something akin to perverted communism. In short, Ford's Lee Iacocca did not and would not ever exist in the imagination of Ayn Rand.
The second response, related to the first, is that Paul Ryan is completely full of shit. Here is a clip of Ryan describing Rand as the person who properly articulates the morality of capitialism.
The attack on democratic capitalism, on individualism and freedom in America, is an attack on the moral foundation of America, and Ayn Rand more than anyone else did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism. And this, to me, is what is matters most. It is not enough to to say that President Obama's taxes are too big, or the health care plan doesn't work for this or that policy reason. It is the morality of what is occurring right now and how it offends the morality of individuals working toward their own free will to produce, to achieve, to succeed, that is under attack, and it is that what I think Ayn Rand would be commenting on, which we need that kind of comment more and more than ever.Like Rand, Ryan sees nothing but the "producer," with the critical difference being that Ryan is dealing with real life, not fiction. If policy is driven soley from the perspective of the producers, then the Pinto is the inevitable result. To Ryan's mind, producing a car that is known to be unsafe is not only justified, but doing so is the right of the producer. Any harm that befalls the consumer, presumably, is subordinate to the producer's freedom to achieve and succeed.
The third and most important response is the extent to which the GOP wants to ensure that a company like Ford might never again suffer the consequences of producing a harmful product. The preamble to the GOP's 2012 platform states:
This platform affirms that America has always been a place of grand dreams and even grander realities; and so it will be again, if we return government to its proper role, making it smaller and smarter. If we restructure government’s most important domestic programs to avoid their fiscal collapse. If we keep taxation, litigation, and regulation to a minimum.Emphasis added. Everyone knows that the GOP wants lower taxes and less regulation on business. Notably, during the 1970s while concerns about the Pinto's safety were growing, Ford was fighting tooth and nail to kill federal safety regulations about, among other things, fuel tanks that were susceptible to rupturing on impact. The Mother Jones article linked earlier discusses this fight in detail.
Too often overlooked, however, is the party's longstanding desire to stop people like Richard Grimshaw or their heirs, like Mrs. Gray's, from holding the "producers" accountable when they put dangerous products into the stream of commerce. The platform doesn't get into so-called tort reform as a general concept, preferring to limit the discussion to medical malpractice with some hat tips to "frivolous" lawsuits in other specific areas.
But as Jamie Kitman observed in a March 2011 article at CarTalk, the Republicans are interested in curtailing damages that plaintiffs like Grimshaw could recover, no matter how severe the misconduct of companies like Ford:
However, under tort reform legislation being considered again today by a Republican House, punitive damages in a case like Grimshaw might be capped at $250,000. The total damages awarded to the burned child would today be limited in total amount to less than one percent of the 1970 judgment.Punitive damages are intended to punish the wrongdoer and prevent similar wrongful conduct in the future. The practical effect of a punitive damages cap on industry giants when they are engaging in the sort of cost/benefit analysis that Ford undertook when it determined to unleash the Pinto on an unsuspecting public is nil.
"Tort reform" seeks to eliminate what is often the only check — and redress — we have against corporate wrongdoing. If the tort reformers have their way, the price of killing innocents with products known to be defective and potentially lethal will fall with inevitably, disastrous consequences.
Without the deterrent effect of punitive damages, company brass can proceed at will with profits, but not safety, in mind. And that -- a Pinto renaissance, if you will -- is precisely what the "morality of capitalism" hopes to accomplish.