The landmark Ford Pinto trial, which entered its eighth week Monday in this rural community, has popularly been termed a David-and-Goliath confrontation with a part-time county prosecutor, assisted by a volunteer staff, playing David. Ford Motor Co., backed by tremendous financial resources, has seemed a convincing Goliath.
But chief Ford attorney James Neal claims he and his client have been miscast.
"It's difficultt to defend a big company these days," Neal, a former Watergate special prosecutor, laments, arguing that the prosecution isn't burdened by an image of a profit-hungry corporation with a "buyer beware" attitude.
"It's easy to take a shot at big corporatons," Neal said. "I've had to contend with scores of cheap shots." He noted that a recent newspaper cartoon showed a bomber dropping gassed-up Pintos over Iran.
Neal also contends that head state's attorney Michael Cosentino has "enormous forces" behind him in the form of Indiana State Police assistance, a fiery Pinto explosion that began the case, and expert witnesses and plaintiff's lawyers from around the country who specialized in similar trials.
"The prosecution may have less money, but perhaps no fewer resources than Ford," says Jerry Sloan, the Ford public relations official assigned to the company's trial staff here.
Neal reportedly has a $1 million budget to defend Ford in the nation's first criminal trial of a corporation on charges of reckless homicide. Ford was indicted for failure to warn about or repair alleged fuel system defects in its 1971 through 1976 Pintos. The charges stem from the August 1978 deaths of three teen-age girls whose 1973 Pinto burst into flames when struck from behind by a van near Goshen, Ind.
In contrast. Cosentino and his volunteer staff of law professors, deputy prosecutors and law students are operating on a specail $20,000 budget underwritten by Elkhart County. (The trial was moved 90 miles to Winamac when Ford attorneys persuaded the Elkhart judge that the automaker could not receive a fair trial in Elkhart, which is only 10 miles from Goshen.)
Cosentino says he is even contributing some of his own money to fund the prosecution but won't say how much.
When told of the defense team's suggestion that the state has perhaps as many resources available to it as the automaker has, Cosentino replied: "Baloney."
The prosecutor says he would have called more expert witnesses to the stand had his budget allowed. As it was, the two experts who did appear for the state, Los Angeles auto safety consultant Byron Bloch and former Ford senior engineer Harley Copp, donated their services. The two witnesses are reputed normally to charge fees of $50 an hour.
"Our volunteers are in this case because they believe in it," Cosentino says. "It's refreshing to see such commitment to a cause."
Ford has brought to Winimac a 20-member defense staff, which includes attorneys, three company officials, secretaries, researchers and messengers. The company has rented a two-story building for office space and maintains headquarters in the office of the team's local attorney, Lester Wilson.
Noon meals for the Ford people are delivered by a local delicatessen "so everyone doesn't have to come out of court and stand in a long lunch line," explained Sloan, who provides background information to the news media. "It's a modest lunch of sandwiches and salads." Contrary to what may be popular opinion, he says, "we haven't seen hors d'oeuvres in weeks."
The prosecution's seven-man staff is renting a house 15 miles north of Winamac. For office space the team crowds into the conference room of its local attorney, Dan Tankersley.
"At noon we may buy some lunchmeat and bread at the corner grocery, slap some butter on with a knife and drink a coke," Cosentino says. "But I've lost nine pounds. It's been good for me."
The automaker's attorneys arranged for a special team of out-of-town court reporters to work the trial "because no one in Winamac is equipped to provide us with daily transcripts, and we rely heavily upon them," Sloan says. pFord pays $9 per page for the transcripts, which to date number nearly 4,500 pages. The prosecution has been priced out of the daily transcript market.
Neither side believes their budgets will be a deciding factor in the trial.
"Ford's facilities are better than ours and their meals may be better, but that won't be shown in court," Cosentino says. Unless, he notes with a laugh, a growling stomach "makes me meaner." In the frequent verbal battles between the attorneys, Cosentino is notorious for displaying his temper.
Ford is expected to conclude its defense presentation next week, and the state plans three days of rebuttal testimony before final arguments and and presentation of the case to the jury.