People injured by defective products deserve to be compensated for their injuries and medical bills. A product liability lawsuit, however, can have a positive impact on a much larger scale. In fact, product liability lawsuits have led to numerous product safety improvements in cars, firearms, manufacturing plant equipment, toys and countless other products. And those lawsuits have often been brought about not by a government agency, but by an injured person or their family taking a company to court, such as the Ford Pinto lawsuit or the Bridgestone Tire Recall. So just how important are these types of cases?
Perhaps the most famous is the Ford Pinto lawsuit. That case involved a defect with automobile’s fuel system design. There were deadly incidents involving the Pinto. But before those incidents, things actually started off well. In May of 1968, the Ford Motor Company introduced a subcompact car and started production domestically. The company wanted to gain a large market share and wanted to do so quickly. As a result, the automobile was designed and developed on an accelerated schedule. Things were looking good for Ford with excellent sales during the first few years after the release.
Only a few years later, however, there was an accident involving a 1972 Pinto with the impact igniting a fire which killed two people involved in the accident. The jury awarded a very large verdict which was subsequently reduced. Things got significantly worse six months following that verdict when there was another crash involving the Pinto. The Pinto exploded causing the deaths of three women. It was determined that the automobile’s fuel system design contributed to their deaths and the fact that Ford had chosen earlier not to upgrade the fuel system design became an issue of public debate as a result of this case.
Ultimately, in February of 1978, a California jury created a nationwide sensation when it awarded the record-breaking sum of $128 million in a lawsuit stemming from the damage caused by the Pinto. Following the verdict, the Department of Transportation announced that the Pinto fuel system had a "safety related defect" and called for a recall. Ford agreed, and on June 9, 1978 the company recalled 1.5 million Pintos. The recall, however, came too late to save Ford’s reputation. Millions of dollars in lawsuits were filed and won against the automaker, including the largest personal injury judgment ever. In addition, in another case, Ford earned the dubious distinction of being the first American corporation ever indicted or prosecuted on criminal homicide charges. Ford was ultimately acquitted of reckless homicide in March 1980, but the damage was done. Ford had no choice but to halt production of the car five months after the trial.
The Pinto example, described in detail, is not alone among product liability lawsuits that effected positive change. Such lawsuits can create serious monetary consequences for those companies, but more important, they can force not only those companies, but also the market as a whole, to take notice of the consequences of placing dangerous products on the market.
The lawsuits brought against Bridgestone’s Firestone tires resulted in a recall. That recall not only caused that company to recall its tires and alert it that serious changes needed to be made for future products, but it also put the rest of the industry on notice that they would need to put forth quality tires or face similar future risks.
When a company chooses to put a product, which represents a dangerous design or characteristics not present in competing products, on the market, this may well have the practical effect of lowering existing industry safety standards, customs or expectations. Product liability cases can help guard against such dangers.
A Cum Laude Honors graduate of Cumberland School of Law, Alabama tort law expert Mike Roberts has successfully litigated cases covering civil litigation, personal injury, negligence, product liability, wrongful death and fraud. He is the author of six editions of Alabama Tort Law, and is licensed to practice law before the United States Supreme Court.