Ford Pinto Case Ethical Issues

On August 10, 1978 three young girls died in a 1973 Ford Pinto after being stuck from the rear by a driver in a van. The Ford Pinto was completely engulfed in flames and the accident resulted in the death of the three young girls. Today, the debate continues regarding whether or not The Ford Motor Company was responsible for this case and many other cases involving the Pinto bursting into flames resulting in disfigurement or death. Ford has argued for over three decades that The Ford Motor Company is not at fault, but rather the other motorists who happened to rear end the Pinto drivers.

Many accuse Ford of rushing the Pinto into production without proper testing leaving a faulty fuel system in the car that would rupture with any rear end collision or rollover accident; this resulted in the deaths of over 500 people. Many also accuse Ford of being fully aware of the faults with the Pinto and selling it to the public anyway. Letting the people die because of the Pinto and settling with their families was more economical than recalling the vehicle and fixing the shortcomings of the Pinto.

The question remains regarding whether or not Ford put a price on human lives, or if the company was not at fault for simply trying to compete with foreign car companies to put an American made fuel efficient vehicle on the road. Ford was accused of not accounting for benefit and harm in an ethical business decision, zero personal evaluation, and a very high influence of outside factors. Ethical business decisions require consideration of two important factors, benefit and harm. Did the attorney for Ford Motor, James Neal act with ethical behavior while defending the automobile giant in 1978?

Did Ford Motors and James Neal consider benefit and harm? With respect to advising the appropriate entities of the Ford Pinto defect, many opportunities existed for a number of employees to come forth with the truth. Instead, eight years of continued production went by, and countless lives were lost due to the unethical and reckless behavior of Ford Motors. If placed in the position of jurors who heard the arguments of 1978, personal consideration would have included benefit and harm, instead of relying on the cost/benefit analysis.

Investigation conducted by the prosecution discovered that the engineers for Ford had knowledge of the defect during pre-production crash testing. Contrary to practicing ethically halting production to correct the defect, the automobile manufacturer indicated making changes to the tool design were not cost effective; essentially placing a dollar value on human existence. Ford motors appeared to be concerned with the cost and amount of time necessary to fix problem; rather than the lives lost or people permanently affected by the burning vehicle.

Personal evaluation of this case would take into consideration the fact; one engineer did offer a document indicating and estimate for the cost of value refitting which would prevent the Ford Pinto from bursting into flames should a rear end collision occur. A simple, $1, plastic gadget weighing one pound fitted over the gas tank bolts would have prevented the tank from being punctured. Conclusion was that "it was more economical to let people die and settle the suits afterward" (Newton and Ford, 2008).

Put simply, the Ford corporate heads believed no project was worth manufacturing if the cost-benefit indicated a greater cost than the benefit. Further evaluation of the analysis indicated if the defect was repaired, the cost of the automobile would increase; resulting in fewer sales and profit decrease. Taking into consideration the above discovery, which was provided to the jury, the personal decision would have been different from the actual outcome of the Pinto case.

The belief is that Ford Motors behaved with greed; which prevented the corporation from making ethical and moral decisions with regard to taking on the responsibility to right the wrong. Ford Motors was consumed with the fact the organization was losing market shares to the overseas markets offering a smaller, more economical vehicle. Personal influence would have taken the cost-benefit analysis out of the equation and placed a higher value on human lives. Due to the fact, the case was criminal; deliberation for conviction would have included the corporate heads and engineers responsible for designing and assembling the Ford Pinto.

In addition, while the driver of the van did hit the vehicle with the three young girls, the driver of the van would not have been allowed to be the sole scapegoat for the Ford attorney to present to the jury. During deliberations, James Neal argued, "the problem is not cars, but people" (Newton and Ford, 2008). People design and manufacture vehicles to be sold to the public. Having the knowledge of a defective vehicle and learning how much time passed before actual repairs commenced; influence to the jury deliberations would have been made for a conviction.

One such wrongful death suit involving defective seat belts was filed in Texas. A young female passenger in a 1998 Chevy Cavalier was fatally injured in 2008 when the webbing of the seat belt ripped away from the casing during a collision. The mother of the victim is seeking an excess of $75,000 from General Motors; claiming GM failed to crash test the seat belts; make repairs; and continued to sell the product after learning of the defect. The external pressure which would have an influence on decision making would be normative pressures; which may reflect two "different moral views of an action" (DeGeorge, 2006, para. 31) from different individuals or cultures.

In the Pinto case, the Ford Motor corporate heads and engineers were responsible for producing a vehicle known to cause deaths and disfigurements; as was the young driver of the van crashing into the Pinto, causing the deaths of the three young girls. The prosecution and defense attorneys each presented the case with the best outcome for the client in mind. Both arguments were valid on the face of the discovery presented to the jury.

This left the jury with the decision to determine if Ford Motors should be held accountable for the deaths of 500 passengers of the Ford Pinto. When looking at the Pinto case today, one can easily determine that there were some negligent and unethical decisions being made by the Ford Motor Company. However, could there be a different perception on these decisions if one were living in the 1970s? Lee Iacocca, CEO of the Ford Motor Company, was trying to make sure that America was going to be competitive with the small car import car makers.

During that time our country was seeing an influx of small affordable cars that realistically American auto makers were going to have a tough time competing with. Mr. Neal stated during the trial that, “One company that saw the influx of foreign, small-made cars in 1967 and ’68 and tried to do something about it, tried to build a small car with American labor that would compete with foreign imports, that would keep Americans employed, that would keep American money in America” (Newton and Ford, 2008).

Could have trying to stay competitive with the foreign market and trying to keep American money in America have been the mindset of the people in 1970? It looks like in this case that it very well could have been. The fact that there were so many regulations put in place by the automobile industry made it very difficult for American car makers to compete. In the 1970s the hostility towards the government and restrictions on big business continued to grow. Many during that time believed it was this type of control that made it impossible to compete and in the end it would cost many American's to lose their jobs.

So Ford Motor Company built a subcompact that would be competitive with the imports that were becoming so popular in order to save jobs for Americans and make a profit for stockholders (Newton and Ford, 2008). Looking at this case today, it is understandable why this case is being looked at differently. Today, people are not only looking at the bottom line, they are also looking at unethical decisions that were made in a large company. Was it more expensive to fix what they knew was wrong, or more expensive to take on the law suits they knew were coming.

The Ford Motor company was wrong. They shelled out more money than they originally thought, and they are also scarred for life because this case will always be something the Ford Company will be remembered for. Unethical decisions can scar and ultimately be the doom of any business. Companies, like the Ford Motor Company, that people trust are making ethical decisions when it comes to safety because people are sending out their loved ones in Ford vehicles every day.

One perception of the case could change depending on the time period; however, because this case is being reviewed 40 years later, one would be amazed that such a big company survived when making such poor ethical decisions. Putting people's lives in danger in order to save some money is a highly unethical decision, and although Ford would argue it, the company had knowledge of the Pinto endangering lives. Yet the car was still put on the market in order to "compete with foreign automakers". Cases like the Ford Pinto accidents have hopefully opened the door for other production companies to be more caring about what they put on the market.