Ford Pinto Case

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Events in the 1970s related to the Ford Pinto automobile illustrate some of the ethical issues related to technology and safety. In an effort to produce a stylish but affordable subcompact automobile with a low operating cost, Ford Motor Company management made a questionable decision regarding the positioning of and protection for the fuel tank. A safer gas tank and tank location were technologically feasible, but consumer affordability and style took precedence over safety. Ford engineers were constrained by design and cost limitations, and the case therefore illustrates how engineering decisions are often made in the context of marketing strategies. For example, the car was designed to have a short rear-end, perhaps in imitation of the extremely popular Ford Mustang. This limited the engineers' alternatives for fuel tank safety and placement. The tank was placed behind the rear axle instead of over-the-axle, a safer location that had been used in the Ford Capri. Critics charged that this decision was a result of the reduction in trunk space caused by the over-the-axle placement. Another example of a limitation on the engineers was that management apparently mandated that the car cost no more than $2000 and weigh no more than 2000 pounds. If these limitations were really stipulated, then the engineers would have been constrained in many areas related to safety. Given these design and cost limitations, is it fair to hold the engineers morally responsible for the preventable pinto fire injuries and deaths? Other issues illustrated by the Pinto events relate to the definition of safety, the appropriate responsibilities and professional obligations of engineers, the interactions between different parts of organizations, ethical management decision-making, and effective government safety policies.

For example, "safety" can be understood to mean "acceptable risk of harm," but how much risk is acceptable in a subcompact automobile? Additionally, did the engineers have a professional obligation to reject the Pinto design elements and management directives that seriously compromised safety? Should Ford management have had the final word on the Pinto design or should the engineers have had a "veto" related to safety? If management really placed marketing considerations above safety, was that objective ethical and are members of management morally responsible for the preventable Pinto fire deaths? Finally, was the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ineffective or unethical because the Ford Pintos always complied with all the government standards?

Ford produced the Pinto automobile from 1971 to 1980. Initially the car sold well, but a defect in early models made Pintos prone to leaking fuel and catching on fire after relatively low-speed, rear-end collisions. The Pinto's gasoline tank was located behind the rear axle. A rear-end collision of about twenty-eight miles per hour or more would crush the car's rear end, driving the fuel tank against the differential housing and causing it to split and the filler pipe to break loose. Sometimes the spilled fuel and sparks from the crash caused fires that produced fatalities or serious burns. Many such victims or their relatives filed civil suits against Ford Motor. This litigation generated damaging publicity for Ford and for the Pinto, and it increased public concern over fuel system integrity in general. In 1976 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) implemented a rear-impact safety regulation. The 1977 Pintos were in compliance with this standard, but earlier Pintos were not required to be in compliance and did not meet the standard. Responding to publicity about the Pinto's poor safety record, the NHTSA crash-tested some early Pintos and in 1978 announced that a safety defect existed in the fuel systems of 1971–1976 Pintos. With an NHTSA public hearing scheduled, Ford recalled the 1971–1976 Pintos to upgrade fuel system integrity.

The improvements to the 1977 and subsequent model-year Pintos and the recall of the earlier ones should have solved Ford's Pinto fuel system problems. In September 1978, however, an Indiana grand jury indicted Ford on three felony counts of reckless homicide. This indictment was related to an accident in which, after a van rear-ended a Pinto in an allegedly low-speed collision, three young women burned to death. In contrast to the previous Pinto cases, this one was a criminal trial, not a civil suit. Ford was found not guilty on all the charges because the corporation's lawyers persuaded the jury that the crash was not, in fact, a low-speed one, and hence the deaths did not result from Ford's having kept a lethal vehicle in production in spite of an obvious fatal flaw. Ford stopped producing the Pinto after 1980, having sold about 3 million of the vehicles.


SEE ALSO Automobiles;Engineering Ethics.


Birsch, Douglas, and John Fielder. (1994). The Ford Pinto Case. Albany: State University of New York Press. Includes the basic documents needed to understand the case and articles that discuss the ethical issues related to it.

Cullen, Francis; William Maakesstad; and Gray Cavender. (1987). Corporate Crime under Attack: The Ford Pinto Trial and Beyond. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing. Contains a section on corporate crime and the movement to control it and another part on the Indiana criminal trial of ford motor company related to three pinto fire fatalities.

Strobel, Lee Patrick. (1980). Reckless Homicide? Ford's Pinto Trial. South Bend, IN: And Books. Discusses the Indiana criminal trial in which Ford Motor Company was found not guilty on three counts of reckless homicide.