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Ford Pinto

Rollover Economics II

by Ted Frank on January 10, 2007

Justinian Lane responds to my recent Liability Outlook about the Buell-Wilson case (Jan. 4 and links therein). The PDF version has pretty typesetting and graphics in lieu of substance, though I question the choice of Futura (a sans serif typeface designed for display) as the font for the main text, as well as the use of oversized bullets.

I was especially impressed that Lane responded to my criticism of the inaccuracy of the court’s description of the case by quoting the court’s description of the case, and my criticism of California evidentiary rules by citing California evidentiary rules. Lane doesn’t explore the implications of his explicit contention that juries get it right only seven percent of the time, an even better argument for reform if it were true than the one I made. Ironically for a piece that purports to “set the record straight,” Lane has more misrepresentations of my argument and factual errors than I have time to spend counting.

To take a non-obvious one, Lane’s description of the Grimshaw case is incorrect (or at least poorly worded, depending on what he means by “backfired”): comparative evidence in that case showing that the Pinto was safer than other subcompacts and no more likely to explode was excluded over Ford’s objection. (In the famous case against Ford brought by state prosecutors over the Pinto, Ford was allowed to introduce that evidence, and an Indiana jury acquitted Ford.) I leave it to the error- and non-sequitur-seeking reader to peruse Lane’s other arguments, including the claim that the amount of the award against Ford is justified because Lee Raymond contracted with Exxon to receive stock options that, after the share price went up, turned out after the fact to be worth a lot of money.

But let’s give credit to Bizarro-Overlawyered for their new tack of acknowledging the existence of other arguments, even if they still can’t bring themselves to address them head-on or link to what they purport to be commenting on. Judge for yourself.

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My latest Liability Outlook for AEI is about the Ford Explorer rollover litigation and what it says about products liability litigation in the US in general:

It went generally unnoticed last November when the California Supreme Court refused to review an intermediate court’s decision in Buell-Wilson v. Ford Motor Co. But then again, it went generally unnoticed when a jury awarded an arbitrary $368 million in damages in that case, when the trial judge reduced that verdict to an arbitrary $150 million judgment, and when an intermediate appellate court reduced that figure to an arbitrary $82.6 million (which, with interest, works out to over $100 million). Products liability verdicts have become so run-of-the-mill that even nine-digit verdicts and their aftermath receive only local or specialty press coverage, with cursory national coverage. But Buell-Wilson demonstrates much that is wrong with the current liability regime, including the fact that the media is so jaded by litigation abuse that a $368 million verdict is barely newsworthy.

I have a related letter to the editor in the Jan. 1 Legal Times. See also POL Dec. 13, OL Dec. 12, OL Jun. 3, 2004.

Round-up

by Ted Frank on October 5, 2006

Some quick links:

  • Michael Krauss reviews a Mississippi Court of Appeals decision on a bogus fender-bender claim. [Point of Law; Gilbert v. Ireland]
  • Yet another example of overbroad laws on sex offenders (see also Jul. 3, 2005). [Above the Law]
  • “As far as the law is concerned, those individuals whose pacemakers fail are the lucky ones.” [TortsProf Blog]
  • Emerson Electric sues NBC in St. Louis over a scene in an hourly drama where a cheerleader mangles her hand in a branded garbage disposal. [Hollywood Reporter, Esq.; Lattman; Defamer and Defamer update; St. Louis Post Dispatch]
  • A case that’s really not about the money: Man stiffs restaurant over $46 check, defends himself against misdemeanor charge with $500/lawyer. [St. Petersburg Times; Obscure Store]
  • Bill Childs catches yet another Justinian Lane misrepresentation. See also Sep. 26 and Sep. 17 (cf. related posts on Lane’s co-blogger Oct. 3 and Sep. 25), and we might just have to retire the category, since we can only hope to scratch the surface. Point of Law has the Gary Schwartz law review article discussed by Childs. [TortsProf Blog and ] Lane’s post also deliberately confuses non-economic damages caps with total damages caps: nothing stops someone with more than $250,000 in economic damages from recovering more than $250,000, even in a world with non-economic damages caps.
  • Update: Bill Childs in the comments-section to Lane:

    “Of course, all of this gets pretty far afield from what I originally wrote and that you’ve conceded, which is that you (unintentionally but sloppily) misrepresented the facts of the Pinto memo, failed to research its background beyond what was apparently represented to you, and still haven’t (last time I checked, at 9:10 p.m.) updated your site to reflect your error. Nor have you approved the trackback I sent to the site. You’ve posted comments to that very entry and another entry has gone up on the site, but readers still see the plainly inaccurate statement that the memo excerpt you show was Ford evaluating tort liability for rearendings, when in fact it was Ford evaluating a regulatory proposal for rollovers using numbers from NHTSA.

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Several comments on yesterday’s post merit responses.

1. One commenter invokes the Ford Pinto case, which is interesting because that’s perhaps the most famous anti-reform urban legend of all. He mistakenly says that Ford’s problem there was undervaluing human life (though the figure in the memo merely repeated the NHTSA number), but, in reality, the plaintiffs sought and obtained punitive damages because Ford performed a cost-benefit calculation at all. Any manufacturer caught performing the cost-benefit calculation that the commenter believes reflects the tort system operating at its most efficient is going to be accused of “putting profits before people” and undervaluing human life, and is at severe risk of being hit with punitive damages unless the judge or jury is unusually economically literate.

2. I’m not saying the court should have thrown the case out because of the factual dispute. The jury made the wrong decision on the facts, but the judge made the wrong decision on the law: see McMahon v. Bunn-O-Matic and the dozen or so cases throwing identical theories out.

3. I agree that it’s not enough to look solely at the costs of the tort system, and that one must look at the benefits also. I don’t oppose the tort system as a whole, but there are certainly problems with the tort system that can be improved to increase the benefits while decreasing the costs. The McDonald’s case illustrates several of these problems: (a) bogus expert testimony; (b) the distorting effect of punitive damages, especially when punitive damages in a products liability case is based on the defendants’ sales, rather than the defendants’ conduct; (c) the erosion of the concept of proximate cause from the tort system; and (d) the erosion of the concept of personal responsibility from the tort system; (e) the backwards-looking “failure to warn” cause of action; (f) the system’s unscientific rejection of concepts of statistical significance.

This would be bad enough if the case was simply an outlier, a case where bad luck, a bad judge, a bad jury, and defense mistakes combined to create a wrong result, but ATLA and law professors are holding up this case as a good result, and there’s a generation of law students who mistakenly think that this is what the tort system should aspire to.

4. I mentioned Snopes.com in the post; they appear to have taken down their original McDonald’s coffee page. I’ve changed the link from the main Snopes page to a different post discussing the “Stella Awards” (which we debunked August 27, 2001). There, Snopes.com repeats the claim that the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit was legitimate, and furthers the urban legend that there’s a sinister force behind the Stella Awards—a curious claim, given that the Mikkelsons’ experience with urban legends has surely taught them that no right-wing conspiracy is needed to result in the spreading of a good yarn that isn’t true. (See also Aug. 14.) In contrast, ATLA affirmatively promotes urban legends about the Ford Pinto and McDonald’s coffee case on their page.

5. Side note about an irony of the Ford Pinto case: the litigation was sold to the American public as a godsend because Pintos were so dangerous that their gas tanks killed a thousand or more. Gary Schwartz added up the numbers, and discovered that only 28 people died in Ford Pinto fuel-fed fires—a rate lower than many other small cars. ATLA shamelessly uses the new number to exclaim that current product manufacturing snafus are “worse than the infamous Ford Pinto,” which is, of course, infamous only because of the successful propaganda of the trial bar.

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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?

No discussion of the modern litigation system seems to be complete without a reference to the Ford Pinto and the supposed “smoking-gun” memo found in the automaker’s files. As Newmark’s Door observes (Jul. 11), the myth was long ago refuted, but it lives on endlessly in public discussion anyway, perhaps because many fans of expansive product liability find it too good to check. We’ve commented on it a number of times in the past — here, for instance (see final paragraphs).

Archived entries before July 2003 can be found here, where the following brief essay originally appeared:

The finest achievement of American trial lawyers, to hear many of them tell it, has been their success in identifying unsafe models of automobile and forcing them off the road. The Ford Pinto case is invariably put forth as an example of how a big company knowingly designed and sold an obviously defective vehicle for which it was properly chastised by means of large jury awards. (Ralph Nader has promised to put a Pinto exhibit in his proposed Museum of American Tort Law.) Almost as well known has been litigation over claims of “sudden acceleration” in Audi 5000s, in which the German-made sedans were said to dart inexplicably out of control even though their owners were pressing the brake pedal with all their might.

To be sure, the Audi case presents an inconvenient complication, namely that the cars weren’t inexplicably accelerating — a series of conclusive government investigations found that the drivers were in fact mistakenly pressing the accelerator thinking they were on the brake. Likewise with the controversy over “sidesaddle” gas tanks on some GM full-size pickup trucks, said to be inexcusably unsafe in side-impact collisions but revealed in real-world crash statistics to be considerably safer than the average vehicle on the road (which did not keep lawyers from winning at least one huge verdict against them).

Trial lawyers offer up the auto safety issue to public audiences and juries as a simple, satisfying morality play of wicked automakers versus helpless victims. It is seldom clear, however, what they would consider to be adequate safety performance. Every mass maker of vehicles for the U.S. market — even Volvo, even Lexus, even BMW — has faced lawsuits in American courts alleging that its designs are impermissibly unsafe. The explanation is not that all models are defectively designed, but that drivers of all models get into accidents — and when crash victims’ injuries are serious and the other driver underinsured, lawyers will often stretch quite a ways to find some theory or other that allows them to pull in the maker of the car as a defendant. Many such theories are available because auto design is a complex subject, because the circumstances in which accidents take place are often factually muddled and open to dispute, and because the design of all vehicles, even the full-size Mercedes, involves trade-offs between safety vs. expense, safety vs. convenience/enjoyment, and safety vs. safety (protecting passengers from front impacts versus protecting them from side impacts, for instance). But some trial lawyers seem to be willing to get up in front of a jury and downplay even well-known, longstanding safety trade-offs in vehicle design — such as the greater rollover hazard that drivers face in convertibles and in off-road vehicles with high ground clearance — in favor of the theory of a sinister conspiracy in executive suites to kill customers.

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The Audi case is written up at length in Chapter 4 of Peter Huber’s magisterial Galileo’s Revenge: Junk Science in the Courtroom (Basic Books, 1991), which is not online but is available through the Overlawyered.com bookstore. It is also discussed more briefly in his article “Junk Science in the Courtroom“. A short but vivid account appears in P. J. O’Rourke’s humorous account of the workings of government, Parliament of Whores (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991, pp. 86-87). The notorious “60 Minutes” show attacking the Audi comes in for a drubbing in our editor’s 1993 National Review expose of dubious crash journalism, “It Didn’t Start With Dateline NBC“, adapted and reprinted in The Rule of Lawyers, and is the subject of a valuable retrospective in the August 1998 Brill’s Content by Greg Farrell (“Lynched: Lurching Into Reverse”), which in turn provoked a fairly hysterical response from CBS executives.

In 1993, “Dateline NBC” was caught in one of the great television scandals of all time: filming a supposed “crash test” of a GM full-size pickup being hit and bursting into flames without telling viewers that the truck had been rigged with hidden incendiary devices and tampered with in various other ways to make a fire more likely. But in fact TV newsmagazines had been running highly dubious “crash test” footage for many years; the main difference was that in this case NBC happened to get caught. In the Dateline case, as in many previous instances of fakery, the network was guided and advised by crash “experts” who happened simultaneously to be working for the plaintiff’s lawyers in suits over the defects being alleged in the TV coverage. Not by coincidence, NBC aired its bogus report not long before an Atlanta jury was to hear a major liability suit against GM, the target of the show; they proceeded to vote an award of $105 million.

Overlawyered.com’s editor weighed into the controversy with pieces on the truck’s safety record (“‘The Most Dangerous Vehicle on the Road’“, Wall Street Journal, February 9, 1993), on the media’s reliance on plaintiff’s experts (“Exposing the ‘Experts’ Behind the Sexy Exposes“, Washington Post, February 28, 1993), and on the earlier history of questionable crash-test journalism at American networks (“It Didn’t Start With Dateline NBC“, National Review, June 21, 1993).

On the Ford Pinto case, the best resource is unfortunately not online, but is well worth a trip to the local law library now online: the late Gary Schwartz’s 1991 Rutgers Law Review article “The Myth of the Ford Pinto Case” (43 Rutgers L. Rev. 1013-1068). Schwartz, a law professor at UCLA and prominent expert on product liability, showed that (as our editor summed up his findings in 1993): “everyone’s received ideas about the fabled ‘smoking gun’ memo are false. The actual memo did not pertain to Pintos, or even Ford products, but to American cars in general; it dealt with rollovers, not rear-end collisions; it did not contemplate the matter of tort liability at all, let alone accept it as cheaper than a design change; it assigned a value to human life because federal regulators, for whose eyes it was meant, themselves employed that concept in their deliberations; and the value it used was one that they, the regulators, had set forth in documents. In retrospect, Schwartz writes, the Pinto’s safety record appears to have been very typical of its time and class.”

In July 1999, rekindling a public debate about the irrationality of jury decisions in product liability cases, two California juries returned enormous verdicts within three days of each other: a Los Angeles jury voted $5 billion against GM for the allegedly defective design of its 1979 Chevrolet Malibu, and a jury in rural Ceres, Cal. returned a $290 million verdict against Ford in a case against its Bronco truck. The cases are discussed on Overlawyered.com in the entries for July 10, August 27 and September 10 (GM) and August 24 (Ford). In the General Motors case, plaintiffs successfully prevented GM from telling the jury that the accident had been caused by a drunk driver who had been convicted of a felony and imprisoned over the accident; or that the Malibu’s real-life crash statistics showed it to be safer than the average car of its era; or that the alternative crash design proffered by plaintiffs raised safety concerns of its own and was not widely used by other makers. In the Ford case, a long series of emotionally manipulative trial tactics by the plaintiff’s lawyers paid off when one juror told her colleagues that the reason they had to vote for liability had come to her in a dream.

In April 2000, after a two-month trial, the tables were turned when a federal jury found that the magazine Consumer Reports, frequently aligned with the trial-lawyer side in legislative fights, had made numerous false statements in its October 1996 cover story alleging a dangerous propensity to roll over in the 1995-96 Isuzu Trooper sport utility vehicle, but declined to award the Japanese carmaker any cash damages. The jury found that CR’s “testing” had put the vehicle through unnatural steering maneuvers which, contrary to the magazine’s claims, were not the same as those to which competitors’ vehicles had been subjected. Jury foreman Don Sylvia said the trial had left many jurors feeling that the magazine had conducted itself arrogantly, and that eight of ten jurors wanted to award Isuzu as much as $25 million, but couldn’t see their way to overcoming the high threshold to proving “malice”. The jury found eight statements in the article false, but in only one of these did it determine CR to be knowingly or recklessly in error, which was when it said: “Isuzu … should never have allowed these vehicles on the road.” However, it ruled that statement not to have damaged the company, despite a sharp drop in Trooper sales from which the vehicle later recovered.

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