With millions of dollars in potential damages riding on the outcome of the case, the Ford Motor Co. yesterday asked the Elkhart County Superior Court to throw out murder indictments against the corporation stemming from the deaths last summer of three teen-agers in a Pinto crash.
In its first response to the unprecented indictments handed down by the county grand jury Sept. 14, Ford stated that it should have never been charged with the three counts of reckless homicide and one count of criminal recklessness in what it described essentially as a civil product liability case, Ford called the indictments "unconstitutional."
"If Ford acted improperly and if its actions or omissions caused or contributed to the injuries alleged - a proposition that Ford vigorously disputes - the civil law is more than adquate to deal with any branch," the Ford said in its legal briefs.
Prosecuting attorney Michael Cosentino feels differently, however. It was his presentation that convinced the Grand Jury to indict Ford. In its indictment the Grand Jury said that Ford "though the acts and omissions of its agents and employees; caused three young girls to die because it "recklessly" constructed the Pinto "in such a manner as would likely cause (it) to flame and burn upon rear-end impact. . ."
The indictment charged that Ford "had a legal duty to warn the general public" about problems with the Pinto fuel tank, and failure to do so created "a substantial risk of bodily injury."
For its part, Ford now says Cosentino is trying "to stretch the criminal process to fit the allegations of a product liability case."
Ford is in the process of recalling 1.5 million Pintos and Mercury Bobcats to install new equipment designed to protect the cars against the kind of fires that have developed in several instances involving rear-end collisions.
The Center for Auto Safety, a Washington-ased consumer group, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had investigated several such accidents and indicated that there were problems with gas tank leakage and subsequent fires after crashed.
The Elkhart case involved a van travelling about 50 miles per hour when it rammed the rear of the Pinto carrying two sisters age 18 and 16, and their 18-year-old cousin. The car carrying the three young girls was traveling at about 10-17 mph, according to a NHTSA report. But the fire was "instantaneous," according to Conentino. The County Grand Jury did not, however, choose to bring charges against the driver of the van, who said he saw the warning flashers of the Pinto, but thought it was traveling at his speed.
In its filing, Ford also contended that the prosecutor was trying to apply a new law to an old case.
New provisions of the Indiana Penal Code, which went into effect a year ago, allow for a corporation to be charged with criminal violations. It is under those provisions that Casentino brought his case against Ford.
But Ford said that it is a violation of the Indiana state and Federal constitutions to apply the provisions of that new code "to the design and manufacture of a 1973 automobile."
Ford also pointed out that the U.S. Congress had "considered and resoundingly rejected the imposition of criminal penalties for defective product design," when it adopted the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966.
"Finally," Ford's filine states, "any attempt by individual states to use the criminal law to impose varying standards for the design and manufacture of automobiles - which are part of interstate commerce - would also unreasonably burden the free flow of such commerce in violation of the Commerce clause of the federal constitution."
This is the first Ford volley in what may become, if it reaches the trial stage, one of the most important criminal trials in history.