The Ford Motor Co. was charged with three counts of reckless homicide and one count of criminal recklessness yesterday in connection with the fiery death of three women riding in a Ford Pinto involved in an automobile crash last month.
The unprecedented indictments were handed down by the Elkhart County, Ind., grand jury, which began deliberations Tuesday.
If convicted, Ford faces a maximum possible fine of $35,000.
Ford Vice President and General Councel Henri Nolte said the company had not yet seen the indictment, but added that "we believe this unprecedented action was unwarranted and that the company has not violated any of the laws of Indiana."
The indictments do not name any Ford executives and cannot result in jail sentences for any officials.
But a conviction based on the indictments could be entered into the record in many of the approximately 50 civil lawsuits filed against Ford by Pinto owners involved in accidents and fires.
Ford recently ordered a recall of 1.5 million Pintos and Mercury Bobcats built from 1971 to 1976 because of consumer and government complaints about safety hazards associated with the fuel tank. Although Ford has denied charges that the cars are prone to fuel leakage and subsequent fires in rear-end collisions, it has begun to install protective shiedls on the tanks of the recalled vehicles. Production-line changes were made beginning with 1977 models.
The Aug. 10 accident that led to the indictments involved a 1973 Pinto driven by two sisters and their female cousin, all teen-agers. The car exploded on an Elkart County road when it was hit in the rear by a van.
The grand jury called several witnesses, including two Ford engineers, to talk about the design of the Pinto fuel tank, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says explodes too often when hit from behind. The tank is located at the rear of the car below the trunk.
Ford resisted efforts to have high company executives come to Indians to testify about the company's knowledge of the possible fuel tank problems.
The company has settled several damage suits out of court - including three involving payments in excess of $1 billion by Ford.
The largest jury award came on Feb. 6, in Southern California. A teenager burned in a crash involving a Pinto in 1972 in Orange County was awarded $127.8 million after his attorneys argued that Ford knew the gas tank was dangerous, but didn't change the design in the car because it would have cost $10 a car to do so, and federal standards ordering the safer tank were not in effect yet.
The trial judge later lowered the award to $6.3 million, and Ford still is appealing.
Attorney Mark Robinson, who brought the California action, praised the Indiana indictments, but said it was "unfortunatee" that the only punishment that can result was a fine easily absorbed by the huge corporation.
"The one thing I can say about the Elkhart deal is that publicity is all the public has to fight the Ford Motor Co., and this will just give them more negative publicity," Robinson said.
Elkhart County Deputy Prosecutor Terry Shewmaker said the indictment for criminal recklessness "is a new crime, which is brought under our recently adopted penal code. This is an unprecedented action; we are plowing new grounds.