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1978 Pinto explosion lawsuit, like asbestos verdicts, held negligent corporations responsible

33 years ago today, three teenage girls died after their 1973 Ford Pinto caught fire after being rear-ended by a van on an Indiana highway. The tragedy ended in a historical lawsuit in which the Ford Motor Company was charged with reckless homicide. Much like the asbestos verdicts, the lawsuit taught corporations what Americans would not accept: deadly workplaces, dangerous products, and “callous indifference to public safety.”

The explosion that killed the Erlich girls was not the first: rear-impact collisions involving Ford Pintos had a tendency to end in a burst of flames, and the ensuing lawsuit was not the first leveled against Ford because of the Pinto’s flammability. But it was the first lawsuit that charged a corporation with murder.

As often happened with asbestos verdicts, the jury sided with the plaintiffs, finding Ford responsible for the deaths of the three young women. When a grand jury returned indictments against Ford on three counts of reckless homicide in the Ehrlich case, it was the first time that a corporation had been charged with murder. (History.com)

Though the reckless homicide conviction was ultimately overturned, the case was part of a nationwide change in mindset about corporate responsibility, which had begun in the 1960s with the first asbestos andmesothelioma lawsuits andlandmark asbestos verdicts.

An earlier lawsuit against Ford for an explosive death in situation nearly identical to the Erlich girls’ was upheld, with a California appeals court finding that Ford’s “institutional mentality was shown to be one of callous indifference to public safety.”

In May 1972, a woman was killed when her Pinto caught fire after being rear-ended on a highway. Her passenger, Richard Grimshaw, suffered burns on over 90 percent of his body, and sued Ford for damages. Mr. Grimshaw’s lawyer found that the Pinto’s gas tank was located behind the rear axle, leaving it vulnerable to rear-end collisions.

Not only had Ford known about this design flaw, they opted not to change it because of costs—a decision one could only classify as callously indifferent to public safety. As with asbestos corporations, cost-effectiveness had been prioritized over public safety.

It was only through lawsuits andcompensatory asbestos verdictsthat large corporations learned it was more cost effective to create safe products and in the case of asbestos, safe products and workplaces.