Court Finds That Ford Ignored Pinto’s Safety Problems Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The California Courts of Appeal determined that Ford Motor Company was responsible for the death and injuries sustained in an accident involving a Ford Pinto that was rear-ended and caught on fire. The court determined that Ford was aware of the potential fire hazard because of design flaws built into the Pinto but that the company failed to address the safety issue and repair the problem. Critics of the legal case argue that the Pinto was no more prone to catch fire upon a rear-end impact than other similar cars of the time.

Summary of Event

On May 28, 1972, a Ford Pinto driven by Lily Gray stalled on a Southern California freeway near San Bernardino. Gray’s Pinto hatchback was rear-ended by another car on the freeway and immediately caught fire. Testimony at trial indicated that when the car was struck from behind, the gas tank ruptured. Gray died several days later of complications from her burn injuries. Thirteen-year-old Richard Grimshaw, the sole passenger in Gray’s Pinto and Gray’s neighbor, sustained serious burns to 90 percent of his body, including his face. His nose, an ear, and several fingers were incinerated, and he was permanently disfigured. [kw]Ford Ignored Pinto’s Safety Problems, Court Finds That (May 29, 1981) [kw]Pinto’s Safety Problems, Court Finds That Ford Ignored (May 29, 1981) Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co. (1981) Ford Motor Company Ford Pinto Pinto, Ford Automobile safety;Ford Pinto Gray, Lily Grimshaw, Richard Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co. (1981) Ford Motor Company Ford Pinto Pinto, Ford Automobile safety;Ford Pinto Gray, Lily Grimshaw, Richard [g]United States;May 29, 1981: Court Finds That Ford Ignored Pinto’s Safety Problems[01960] [c]Business;May 29, 1981: Court Finds That Ford Ignored Pinto’s Safety Problems[01960] [c]Law and the courts;May 29, 1981: Court Finds That Ford Ignored Pinto’s Safety Problems[01960] [c]Trade and commerce;May 29, 1981: Court Finds That Ford Ignored Pinto’s Safety Problems[01960] Copp, Harley

A 1977 model Ford Pinto.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Grimshaw as well as Gray’s heirs—her husband and two daughters—sued Ford Motor Company in civil court, alleging that the company manufactured the Pinto even though it knew the car was unsafe. In February, 1978, after a six-month trial, a jury awarded Grimshaw more than $2.5 million in compensatory damages and $125 million in punitive damages. The Grays received $559,680 in compensatory damages. Gray’s family was statutorily prohibited from seeking punitive damages. Determining that the amount awarded to Grimshaw was excessive, trial judge Leonard Goldstein reduced Grimshaw’s punitive damage award to $3.5 million, at the time the largest such award in U.S. legal history. Ford appealed the decision, particularly the punitive damages, and claimed legal mistakes were made during the trial.

On May 29, 1981, the California Courts of Appeal in San Diego affirmed the lower court’s decision, including the punitive damages award. Writing for the court was Judge P. J. Tamura. His opinion included a review of the history of the Pinto. The car was initially conceived in 1968 by Lee Iacocca, vice president at Ford, and was sold beginning in September, 1970. The Pinto was hurried into production to rival imported subcompact automobiles. As such, it was designed to weigh less than two tons and was priced at less than $2,000. Because of the haste in readying the car for retail, the product development time frame was shortened. Styling determinations were made prior to engineering decisions, which ultimately meant that the engineering design would need to accommodate the already determined styling design.

Designers had placed the gas tank behind the rear axle instead of above the rear axle, a more common location for gas tanks at the time. Also, the Pinto had an insubstantial bumper, and the area between the bumper and the axle was narrower than in other cars. The structure of the car lacked reinforcement, and several bolts in the differential housing were left exposed. When combined, these design elements increased the likelihood that the Pinto would catch fire in a rear-end collision. The back of the vehicle would crumble and lead to a punctured gas tank and fuel leak.

The appellate judges agreed that Ford was responsible for Grimshaw’s injuries and Gray’s death. The court noted that Ford’s upper management knew that the Pinto performed poorly in crash tests yet approved its manufacture. The automobile was unable to withstand a rear-end impact from a car traveling 20 miles per hour without rupturing its gas tank. Harley Copp, the former head of Ford’s crash-testing program, testified in court that Ford executives, including Iacocca, were aware of the Pinto crash-test results but advanced the car’s manufacture regardless. Copp said that executives knew of inexpensive modifications that could fix the gas leakage problem. These modifications included reinforcing the car’s structure to reduce collapse at impact, adding more space between the axle and bumper, and better protecting the gas tank from puncture. Even though Ford’s costs would have been less than $20 per car, no changes were made.

Other damaging evidence suggested that Ford used a cost-benefit analysis to decide whether to correct the gas-leakage concern. A 1973 report indicated that Ford determined it would be less expensive to pay for any lawsuits associated with injuries and deaths in accidents than to correct the design flaws. Ford used estimates provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which showed that the monetary value of a burn death was $200,000 and the value of a severe burn injury was $67,000. Ford calculated the expense of potential lawsuits involving 180 burn deaths and 180 burn injuries: approximately $50 million. Ford also found that the cost to correct flaws in 11 million cars and 1.5 million trucks would be about $11 per vehicle, for a total of about $137 million, far more than the estimated $50 million in potential lawsuit awards. As such, Ford decided that the costs of making repairs outweighed the benefit of protecting car occupants from potential injuries or death.

An appellate court found that Ford acted in callous disregard of public safety, yet it upheld the reduced punitive damages award, ruling that the amount was reasonable in relation to Ford’s net worth of approximately $8 billion. The court also ruled that the ratio between punitive damages and compensatory damages was fair, and ruled that the amount of the award would deter similar unethical and reckless business practices by Ford or any other automobile manufacturer.

The court also rejected the appeals of Grimshaw and Gray’s heirs. It determined that the judge in the lower court did not abuse his authority by reducing the punitive damages to $3.5 million. The court also rejected the claim by the Grays that they, too, should be entitled to seek punitive damages against Ford.


The Ford Pinto has a legacy of being one of the most dangerous cars ever made, but it is a legacy that remains questionable and, some argue, even unfair. At the time the Pinto was first produced, no government safety standards existed to ensure against fuel leakage in rear-end collisions. Also, early estimates of the number of deaths from rear-end collisions in Pintos—estimates that ranged from five hundred to nine hundred—were likely exaggerated. A 1991 law journal article claims that the number of deaths is much lower—even as low as twenty-seven—and that the car was no more prone to fire after an accident than other similar subcompact vehicles of the time. Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co. (1981) Ford Motor Company Ford Pinto Pinto, Ford Automobile safety;Ford Pinto Gray, Lily Grimshaw, Richard

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Banham, Russ. The Ford Century: Ford Motor Company and the Innovations That Shaped the World. New York: Artisan, 2002. A comprehensive and lavishly illustrated corporate history of the Ford Motor Company.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Birsch, Douglas, and John H. Fielder, eds. The Ford Pinto Case. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. Compilation of newspaper articles, safety reports, and commentary on the ethics and decision making related to the Ford Pinto.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dowie, Mark. “Pinto Madness.” Mother Jones, September-October, 1977. Published during the Grimshaw trial, this often-cited and Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé claims Ford executives were aware of the potential fire hazard in the Pinto but failed to correct the problem.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, Matthew T., and M. David Ermann. “Pinto ’Madness’ as a Flawed Landmark Narrative: An Organizational and Network Analysis.” Social Problems 46, no. 1 (1999): 30-47. Presents evidence alleging that traditional journalistic accounts of the Ford Pinto are not accurate. For example, the authors claim that the Pinto was about as safe as similar cars produced during the same time.

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Categories: History