The case made headlines recently. A $128.5 million jury-awarded judgment against the Ford Motor Co. The newsreaders on radio and television spoke about it being a record. Most of the money was awarded to Richard Grimshaw, who was riding in a Ford Pinto when it was struck behind by a blow from another car which ignited the Pinto's gas tank.
The Pinto with its controversial gas tank has become the Chevy Corvair of the '70s. The car with the reputation as the most dangerous vehicle on the highways. Whether or not it truly is, the Grimshaw boy was burned over 90 percent of his body and has undergone, according to newspaper reports, 60 operations since the 1972 accident. He is described as horribly scarred and in need of another 30 operations. Whoever is or is not at fault, the last six years of this youngster's life must have been ones of the most indescribable pain.
All of this and much, much more must have been known to the jury which listened to the case for six months before coming to its decision to assess this huge penalty. In the modern legal system, however, judges have many ways of avoiding jury decisions and, in effect, making the 12 citizens who give their time to trials little more than ornamental attendees at what are judicial levees.
If any case would seem to cry out for a downward adjustment it would seem to be this one. Even though the injuries are tragic and the family already has had $125,000 in medical bills, isn't the enormous sum unconscionably high? Assuming for the purposes of discussion the Pinto is indeed an unsafe automobile, then the answer is no. This huge award will not only be of some help to the accident victim, but to society as a whole.
A few judgments like that and no automobile manufacturer is going to make an unsafe automobile. The cost of remedying design error or beefing up quality control will be as nothing compared to the cost of a dozen or so $128 million damage judgments. Such judgments also obviate the need for federal safety standards, which businessmen say drag down productivity and yank up costs. (Parenthetically, let it be noted that in denying the charges against the Pinto one of the defenses Ford is making is that the car "met all applicable federal safety standards." Which brings up the possibility that negligent manufacturers may be able to protect themselves against damage suits by complying with inadequate and bureaucratically botched safety standards.
The idea that the law courts might indirectly provide all of us with high quality consumer protection by giving justice to consumers injured by low-quality merchandise is not likely to catch on. Manufacturers and insurance companies already are putting on a big drive to convince us, i.e. those of us who escape being hurt by what we buy, that it is we who must ultimately pay for the judgments.
The theory is that if Jones and Johnson Widget Inc. are hit with a mammoth damage judgment the insurance companies must raise the rates of every corporation in the widget industry. No such theory obtains, however, when you and I want to buy car insurance. Then we're told the high risks have the high rates and the low risks have the low rates. Why raise the rates of the non-negligent manufacturer who is selling a safe product?
Because by doing so, so much clamor and fear is caused that legislation will be introduced limiting the size of the jugdments which may be awarded. That, of course, wrecks what could be a simple, non-bureaucratic self-enforcing safety system. Approximately the same thing happened when the doctors and the insurance companies pulled their malpractice con of a couple of years ago. The "crises" was resolved by making it next to impossible for the victims to secure compensation for their injuries.
Theodore Koskoff, a lawyer, in Bridgeport, Conn., recently filed a suit against a parcel of insurance companies and advertising agencies who, he charges, are trying to destroy the injured consumer's legal remedy by jury tampering. Specifically Koskoff is objecting to ads placed in three national magazines, stating. "When awarding damages in liability cases, the jury is cautioned to be fair and to bear in mind that money does not grow on trees. It must be paid through insurance premiums from uninvolved parties, such as yourself."
Koskoff's legal theory is novel and probably won't be sustained by the courts, but give him a gold star for trying to safeguard this form of consumer protection. The House of Representatives recently shot down Ralph Nader's proposal to create a federal agency to represent consumer interests before other governmental entities. The reason for the bill's defeat seems to have been irritation and disappointment at how poorly so much consumer protection legislation has worked. But that doesn't mean we don't need protection, if not from the executive branch, then from the law courts.