A Classic Products Liability Case: Ford Motor Co. vs. Grimshaw

Grimshaw vs. Ford Motor co. was a 1978 products liability personal injury case decided on in Orange County and affirmed in 1981. The case covers Ford’s negligent conduct which led to the wrongful death of Lilly Gray as well as severe injury to Richard Grimshaw.

After a stalled Ford Pinto was rear-ended on a southern California highway it quickly caught fire, badly burning the bodies of the vehicle’s driver and passenger, Lilly Gray and Richard Grimshaw respectively. Gray eventually succumbed to her injuries and died from congestive heart failure, while Richard Grimshaw survived with permanently disfiguring burns to his entire body.

The Pinto was Ford’s attempt at quickly producing an affordable compact car in order to compete with the Volkswagen Beatle. Due to the rushed nature of the project, style was emphasized over proper engineering of the vehicle leding to various design flaws. One such design flaw was noted in various crash tests done by Ford, “A collision from the rear "caused the fuel tank to be driven forward and to be punctured, causing fuel leakage." A collision of a production Pinto "caused the fuel neck to be torn from the gas tank and the tank to be punctured by a bolt head on the differential housing." In at least one test collision "spilled fuel entered the driver's compartment through gaps resulting from the separation of the seams joining the rear wheel wells to the floor pan," separations due in part to "the lack of reinforcement in the rear structure." It was this exact design flaw that caused Lilly Gray’s car to erupt in flames, killing her and severely injuring her 13-year-old passenger.

Lee Iococca, the person in charge of the Ford Pinto project, was adamant about keeping a specific price point for the car. Additionally, a cost benefit analysis was done which showed that the cost of redesigning the pinto was more than the cost of lawsuits and litigation that might come from selling a knowingly faulty vehicle. While it would have been less than $15 per car to create a safer Pinto, Ford went ahead and approved the project as is.

Ford’s purposeful negligence led to the wrongful death of Lilly Gray as well as severe injury to Richard Grimshaw. Upon deliberation, the jury awarded $127.8 million in damages; $125 million in punitive damages and $2,841,000 in compensatory damages to Grimshaw and $665,000 in compensatory damages to the family of Gray. The presiding judge eventually reduced punitive damages to $3.5 million.

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