The Ford Motor Co. "sacrified human life for profit" by ignoring recommendations from its engineers that its Pinto auto gas tank design be improved, and thus is guilty of "reckless homicide" in the fiery crash deaths of three young women, an Indiana prosecutor charged today.
Prosecutor Michael Cosentino told the 12-member jury during opening arguments that in the late 1960s Ford was concerned only with producing a Pinto "based on a 2,000-pound, $2,000 concept, with utter disregard for the fuel tank safety."
Cosentino said the state would prove through Ford documents that the company's engineers said a $6-per-car fix would help solve Pinto fuel tank safety problems. "However," Cosentino said, "the same document reflecting top management concern with profit over safety concludes that this would be a 'costly' approach to fuel system safety."
Cosentino said he would prove Ford knew when the Pinto fuel system was designed that it was "exceptionally vulnerable" to post-collision fuel spillage and fire, "but failed to do anything about it or to warn the public."
In his opening statement, Ford defense attorney James Neal revealed the results of new crash tests in which the company will use in its defense the results of new crash tests in which it subjected other vehicles to the same conditions of the crash in this trial.
Neal said he would prove that "with the speed of this accident and the size of the van (that struck the Pinto from behind), other subcompacts and larger cars would have suffered the same fate."
In September 1978, an Indiana grand jury accused the nation's number two automaker of three counts of "reckless homicide" in the deaths of three teen-agers who were killed by fire a month earlier when their 1973 Pinto was slammed from behind by a van on Indiana Rte. 33. The result is the first criminal trial of a corporation for an alleged defect in one of its products.
Neal, in his opening agrument, called virtually all of Cosentino's charges "simply not true."
He gave a spirited defense of Ford's development of the Pinto. "We don't deny we made mistakes," Neal said, "but we are not reckless killers."
Neal claims Ford was the only manufacturer that adhered to a volunary 20 mile per hour rear-end collision safety standard in 1973, three years before federal regulations went into effect.
The 1973 Pinto, Neal claimed, "was built like all other American subcompacts," and met all federal safety standards.
Cosentino charged that in 1977 Ford lied to and concealed information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which had opened an investigation into Pinto fuel tank design problems. That investigation ultimately led to a Ford recall, under government pressure, of 1.5 million 1971-76 Pinto sedans.
But Neal said, "Not only did we not lie and not conceal . . . we spent thousands of hours complying with requests for information." He said the company recalled the cars "to make them better." And, he said, the company "did everything it could" to accomplish the recall as quickly as possible.
The prosecution said it would present four expert witnesses, including two former Ford employes, who "will show that the 1973 Pinto was an extremely dangerous car."
Neal countered by labeling those witnesses as "Howard Cosells, who can only call a play after they see the instant replay." And Neal said the defense would produce the designers of the car in response. "Our witnesses are the quaterbacks who had to make the decisions at the time."
Cosentino said he will prove that Ford crash testers subsitituted a non-flammable solvent for gasoline in the Pinto tank during crash tests which he said, "accounts for the absence of fire in the Pinto tests conducted by the defendant."
Neal claimed use of the solvent was a common automobile industry practice.
Earlier in the day, Pulaski County Judge Harold Staffeldt granted, in part, a Ford motion that reportedly "gory" photographs of the three badly burned victims be excluded from the trial.
Attorney Neal stipulated that the fire, and not the crash, was the cause of death of the three young women. He argued that in light of such a stipulation it was unnecessary to prove that fact.
Neal said that allowing the photos in evidence would reduce the trial to a "melodramatic spectacle appealing to sympathy and emotions," rather than a "trial of issues."
But prosecutors succeeded in fighting off strict restrictions Ford wanted placed on introduction of other photographs and testimony from the scene of the accident.