A 6-year-old Arlington boy who was injured and whose parents were killed when their 1972 Pinto car burst into flames four years ago has been awarded almost $657,000 in damages by an Arlington Circuit Court injury.
Unless the verdict or the amount is overturned, the money will come from the Ford Motor Co., manufacturer of the car. Attorneys for the injured boy, Jeremy Norton, argued that the Pinto's fuel system was defective. Any motions for further action in the case are to be presented in Circuit Court Jan. 6.
An attorney for Ford contends that "there was nothing wrong with the car. It met every federal standard applicable to automobiles . . . It has no higher incidence of fire than any other car."
A claim that the Pinto's fuel system was defective was made in a recent report by the San Francisco-based magazine from Ralph Nader's Center for Auto Safety. The magazine said Pinto collisions produce more burn deaths than collisions involving other cars, a charge that Ford disputes.
Nationally, the Norton case, decided Wednesday night, is the third involving alleged Pinto fuel-system defects to be decided by juries in favour of plaintiffs and against Ford. The Norton boy's attorneys said 22 or 23 similar suits are pending.
The attorneys said a 19-year-old woman who was badly burned in a rear-end collision involving her Pinto in Florida was awarded $3 million, and two persons injured in an Alabama accident were awarded $1.4 million.
The accident involving the Norton Pinto occurred in May, 1973, as Cecilia Norton, 23, was driving her husband Michael, 25, to the downtown Woodward & Lothrop store where he was a salesman, Jeremy was in the back seat.
As the Nortons attempted to pass another vehicle in 35-m.p.h. rush-hour traffic on Shirley Highway, their car was struck in the rear, rolled over and skidded on its top, then burst into flames, according to Norton's attorneys.
Michael Norton died in the car; his wife managed to escape through the Pinto's hatchback and ran down the highway in flames, the attorneys said. Mrs. Norton died a few days later.
Jeremy was rescued through a back window by Virginia Highway Department workers who were nearby.
As a result of the accident, Jeremy, who is living with relatives in Prince George's County, lost several toes and suffered tendon damage that affected his feet, his attorneys said. They also said that because third-degree burns on his legs impaired the growth center in one of his bones he will eventually have to have one ankle surgically fused with his leg bone and he will be unable to flex his ankle.
The boy has already undergone 15 skin grafts and will need several orthopedic operations, plastic surgery and possibly psychological help, his attorneys said.
The other car involved in the crash had less than $200 in damage and its driver was cleared of negligence, the attorneys said.
The boy's attorneys said that when the collision occurred, a tube between the Pinto's gasoline filler cap and the gas tank disconnected, causing gas to spew from the tank.
They also contended that the floor pan (the car's metal understructure) was improperly welded to the frame. Upon impact, they argued, the floor pan split and allowed blazing gasoline to enter the passenger compartment.
Ford denies the allegations, "If you hit a car hard enough it's going to cause some damage," said Ford's attorney, "The driver of the Pinto caused the crash."
Jeremy Norton was awarded $500,000 in compensatory damages for his injuries; $81,425.69 for his mother's death, and $75,401.03 for his father's death, his attorneys said.
A Virginia law that was in effect at the time of the accidental limited liability in cases of accidential death to $75,000 for each death, $500 for funerals and $6,000 for medical expenses. They said the law has since been amended and the limitations removed.