Product Liability: Was Ford to Blame in the Pinto Case?


This is an opinion paper on Part 4 Issue 12 of the textbook Taking Sides, Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in Business Ethics and Society (6th ed.) by Lisa H. Newton and Maureen M. Ford. In this paper I will discuss my reaction to the issue “Product Liability: Was Ford to Blame in the Pinto Case?” The text discussed both sides of this issue. Mark Dowie took the “Yes” position in his paper Pinto Madness. Ford Motor Company took the “No” position in the closing argument for State of Indiana v. Ford Motor Company, U.S. District Court, South Bend, Indiana (January 15, 1980) by Mr. James Neal. I will give my opinion on the topic as it relates to the discussion in the text.


DAN: a bit confused here. Isn’t Neal the author here. he was arguing on behalf of Ford.



In his paper, Dowie took the position that not only was Ford to blame in the case, but that they knew that the Pinto was a death trap before it went into production. He cited evidence that Ford had crash tested the car prior to release and found that in rear-end collisions of over 25MPH, the fuel tank ruptured every single time. He also alleged that the shortened time frame demanded by Lee Iacocca for the Pinto’s release ultimately helped lead to this failure. He also states that the lobbyists in Washington are as much to blame as Ford and Iacocca for the gas tank failures because they helped to block legislation that would have required higher safety standards for subcompact cars.


Dan: OK, so he is arguing that the values at work here were the profits of the company held greater weight than the safety


In his paper, Neal took the position that Ford was not responsible for the problems with the Pinto. He pointed out in his closing statement that the Pinto adhered to the same safety standards as the other subcompact cars on the road at the time. He also mentioned that the engineers responsible for the Pinto bought the car for family members. He believed that if the engineers believed the cars to be hazardous, they would not have purchased them for their loved ones. He also made the point that the crash being discussed in the case would have had the same or similar effects on other cars in its class because they all had relatively low safety standards compared to cars in other classes.


After reading both sides of this story, I do believe that Ford had a moral obligation to put out as safe a car possible for the money. I think this because I believe in the sanctity of human life. To me, anyone who knowingly risks someone else’s life without warning them not only violates this, but also takes away their free choice. I believe Ford was negligent in not using current technology such as the rubber bladder in the gas tank and the plastic shield to make the car safer. I believe this because they knew that there was a problem with the gas tanks and knew it could be prevented. They calculated the loss of human life and found it negligible. I also believe they were no more negligent than the other manufacturers of subcompact cars that were in production if they also knew of the flaws with their vehicles. In my opinion, it would have been fine for them to sell the car as-is if the public were warned of the safety issues. That way, the consumer could choose whether or not to risk their lives in the vehicle or not. In my opinion, this would have negated Ford’s responsibility and put it directly on the consumers who purchased the vehicles. I also think Ford could have done a better job of warning the public once the recall was issued. In my opinion, sending a recall letter was inadequate in this case. They could just as easily put out a press release discussing the issues with the car. It may have decreased their subcompact sales, but if they included a statement on the relative safety compared to other subcompacts on the market then this would be less likely to drop their overall market share. They could also have provided warning labels in subsequent vehicles comparable to the roll-over warnings that are in most SUVs today.


To me, what ford did was equivalent to a drug company putting out a flu medicine that would cause death in 10% of children under the age of 16 carrying the influenza virus. While adults would take the medicine, parents would be unlikely to give it to their children. This has been proven by the Reye’s syndrome cases caused by Aspirin. If the drug company was negligent in putting warning labels on the product, then I believe they would be negligent.



While both of the authors made excellent points, the second was more of a legal statement than an ethical one. Neal made an excellent case as to why Ford was not legally responsible for the Pinto deaths, but this did not address whether or not the company was morally responsible. From the points that Dowie made, I believe his view of Ford’s ethical responsibility, while not completely correct was closer to my own views.


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