Ford Motor Co. was acquitted of reckless homicide by the Pinto jury today after 25 hours of deliberation. The verdict climaxed the 10-week trial of the first American corporation criminally prosecuted in a product defects case.
Ford attorney James Neal said the jury's decision vindicates Ford and its subcompact Pinto, which he believes has been "maligned by one-sided articles" in the national media. "I'm grateful, relieved and proud," the former Watergate prosecutor said. "I thought the verdict was fully justified."
Prosecutor Michael Cosentino said that despite Ford's acquittal, the trial should serve as a lesson to corporations that "they can be brought to trial and have 12 citizens judge their actions." The prosecutor said there was a strong possibility he would ask for a review of several of trial judge Harold Staffeldt's rulings.
Legal observers had said that a guilty verdict could have set new precedents in criminal law, perhaps forcing large corporations to assume the same moral and legal responsibilities as individuals.
Neal said he hope Ford's acquittal would deter other prosecutors from bringing similar criminal charges against corporations, but said he didn't oppose corporate prosecutions or the imposition of higher safety standards throughout industry.
The prominent Nashville attorney said he didn't know what effect the verdict would have on the dozens of civil suits pending against the Pinto's maker, but admitted a conviction in the Winamac case would have had a devastating impact on Ford.
The rural jury found Ford innocent of a charge of failing to warn about or offer to repair fuel system defects in the Pinto before Aug. 10, 1978 -- the day three young women were fatally burned when the fuel tank of their 1973 Pinto exploded in flames after a rear-end collision with a van near Goshen, Ind.
Jury foreman Arthur Selmer, a 62-year-old farmer, said although some panel members may have thought the Pinto was a "reckless auto," Ford was able to prove "they did everything to recall" the car beginning in June 1978 after government investigations of complaints about Pinto. "The state never presented enough evidence to convince us Ford was guilty," he said.
The jurors went through 25 ballots during four days of deliberations. They were deadlocked 8 to 4 in Ford's favor early in the proceedings, the foreman said. The jury later stalled at 11 to 1 for acquittal.
James Yurgilas, 31, a self-employed housing salesman and the last holdout on the jury, said he was "somewhat" upset when asked if he could live with his verdict. Appearing weary and dejected, Yurgilas said he felt the Pinto was "not safe" but finally agreed the nation's second largest automaker did notify owners of the auto's alleged safety hazards in timely fashion.
Neal and his associates presented detailed evidence from employes about Ford's 1978 effort to recall 1.6 million 1971-76 model Pintos and 30,000 1975-76 model Mercury Bobcats for fuel system modifications. Ford's voluntary recall was prompted by an announcement in May 1978 from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it had made on initial determination of a safety defect in the subcompacts' fuel systems which made them prone to massive fuel leakage in low to moderate-speed rear-end collisions.
Neal maintained Ford "did everything in its power to do the recall as quickly as humanly possible." He said testimony showed it was impossible for the company to have readied and installed a modification kit in the 1973 Pinto in which sisters Judy, 18, and Lyn, 16, Ulrich and their cousin Donna Ulrich, 18, were riding when they died.
Many jurors reported they agreed with the belief of panel member Janet Olson, 31, who operates a small trucking business with her husband. The Pinto, Olson said, is "as good as any other subcompact in America." Selmer also said the jury was convinced that the Ulrich Pinto was struck "at a higher rate of speed" that the prosecution claimed and that no car could have withstood such an impact.
Both beliefs echoed key claims of the defense.
Jurors admitted they were concerned that crash test films Ford showed in court made by the automaker for evidentiary purposes.
Selmers said he believed the closing speed in the accident was between 40 and 45 miles per hour and said if the state could have proved a lower closing speed the verdict might have been different.
Raymond Schram, a 41-year-old steelworker and the only Pinto owner on the jury, said he had plans to get rid of his car, "I don't think any small car is safe," he said, but added his family needs a small car for gas mileage savings. "I look in my [rear view] mirror now" when driving, he said.
While Ford's defense hewed to the plan outlined by Neal in his opening statement, the prosecution's case was severely limited and weakened by Judge Staffeldt's strict adherence to rules of evidence in criminal trials.
The state was hampered most seriously by bench rulings that restricted expert testimony to the 1973 model Pinto; Cosentino was thus prevented from showing crash test films of other model year Pintos conducted by Ford and NHTSA.