One more Winnebago thought: the Ford Pinto lawsuit urban legend

by Ted Frank on August 16, 2005

Kudos to John Cole, who evaluated the evidence and withdrew his endorsement of the LA Times story.

One of his commenters protests: “I’ve certainly heard [the Winnebago case] presented as true.” Well, no doubt. That’s the nature of urban legends. The point is that the Winnebago story isn’t a motivating force behind tort reform. The major tort reform advocates aren’t using the Winnebago story (and, in fact, have done much to refute it). Policymakers aren’t enacting tort reform in response to the Winnebago story.

In contrast, what about urban legends that support the litigation lobby? For example, how about the myth that the Ford Pinto was unusually dangerous and the related myth that Ford valued a human life at $200,000 in deciding not to make a design change? It’s a thirty-year-old tale, trumpeted by Mother Jones magazine and the mainstream media, repeated endlessly (including by Ralph Nader and in a talk I heard by Jonathan Turley, quoted in the LA Times story), used in law school textbooks—but it’s utterly false. Unlike the Winnebago story, a google search for “ford +pinto +lawsuit” turns up no refutations on the front page (though maybe this new page will turn up in the future). Rather, one gets such links as a Daily Kos poster using the Ford Pinto case to argue against class action jurisdictional reform, even though the latter has nothing to do with the former. These things are perhaps impossible to measure, but how can anyone possibly think that the false Winnebago story has had more of an impact on the tort reform debate than the false Ford Pinto story? Where’s Myron Levin on this one?