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What The Ford Pinto Case Can Teach Us Almost 50 Years Later


Ford Motor Company once manufactured a car called the Ford Pinto.  It entered the U.S. market in 1970.

Its’ mission for Ford?  Stem the flow of car sales to Japanese companies such as Honda, Toyota and Nissan (then called Datsun).

Yes – it was a time of rising car imports in America and Detroit was feeling the pressure.

In response to this invasion of Japanese vehicles, Lee Iacocca, then a rising star at Ford, demanded that his team come up with a new small car that could compete.  The Pinto was born with instructions from Iacocca that it be limited to 2,000 pounds in weight and be manufactured and sold for no more than $2,000 per car.

And it was a hit when first released.

Sadly – it also quickly became infamous.

It burst into flames if struck from behind by another vehicle.

Thankfully, those injured by Ford’s negligent car design had access to the courts and an opportunity to recover for their often frightful losses.

Why the word negligent above?

It turns out that Ford field-tested the Pinto before releasing it to U.S. markets.

And guess what – each time the car was rear-ended at speeds over 25 miles-per-hour in these field tests, the gas tank ruptured, causing a fire.

Ford engineers actually explored numerous, simple, and inexpensive solutions to the fuel tank problem – solutions that cost as little as $1.  Remarkably – none of these protective options were added to the car.


Two factors were at work.

The first – according to the staff at Ford, the term safety was “taboo” with Iacocca.

The second – and more chilling reason?  Ford’s accounting team calculated that it would be cheaper to settle lawsuits with the public than repair the problem.

And remember – we’re talking about a very inexpensive problem to fix.

The result?

As many as 900 innocent people died in catastrophic car accidents involving Pinto cars.

And yes – Ford paid out millions in damages to innocent people harmed by their product.  They also spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress to defeat new car safety measures being advanced at the time.

Yup – that’s not a typo.  Ford spent millions to lobby against car safety.

Finally, in 1978 – eight years after the Pinto first went on sale – and following a damning National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report, Ford was forced to recall 1.5 million Pintos to correct the problem.

Yes – burning Pintos had finally become a public embarrassment for Ford.

Ironically, for a long time, Ford had aired radio spots that included the line: “Pinto leaves you with that warm feeling.” After all the lawsuits and the findings of the Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Ford’s advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson, was forced to drop that line.

The moral of this story?

Corporations all too often put profit far ahead of consumer safety.  The public’s greatest defense is access to the courts and tort laws – laws that protect people from the bad acts of others.

If you or a loved one has been injured by a defective or dangerous product, call a qualified Connecticut product liability lawyer.  A knowledgeable product liability attorney can help to ensure that your rights are protected.  What’s more, our product liability lawyers have received local and national recognition for our handling of cases like these.

We have a great team of legal experts dedicated to product liability cases in Connecticut.    Please contact us if we can help you. 

The consultation is free and there is no obligation of any kind.

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