Remember the Ford Pinto‚ the egg-shaped economy ride that sometimes exploded when struck from behind? Mark Robinson Does.
He also remembers the look on the faces of the jurors who awarded $127 million to his client 13-year-old burn victim Richard Grimshaw‚ in 1978‚ based on a design flaw that led to the deaths of 27 people from fuel-tank fires in Pintos.
The jurors were outraged to learn that the Ford Motor Co. became aware of the risks of passenger deaths in 1971 yet waited until 1976 to move the Pinto’s gas tank from behind the rear axle to a safer spot above the center of the axle.
"Ford made a decision to place-money ahead of human lives‚" Robinson says‚ waving an Aug. 26‚ 1971‚ fuel ...view middle of the document...
Then in October‚ it was revealed that Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. had also manufactured tires involved in fatal accidents—and questions were raised about what the company knew and when they knew it…
…Robinson has been confronting these issues for decades. The former president of Consumer Attorneys of California was eager to discuss tires‚ trucks and SUVs—and the protective orders he claims corporations rely upon to make sure vital information never sees the light of day.
He and partner Kevin Calcagnie of Newport Beach’s Robinson Calcagnie Robinson Shapiro Davis‚ Inc. agreed to meet at their firm’s warehouse‚ where they store a small fleet of crushed vehicles they’ve purchased from insurance carriers to demonstrate the need for stricter safety standards.
Calcagnie downloaded statistics showing the probability of an SUV rollover given its center of gravity‚ tire height‚ track width and wheel base as Robinson spoke of the auto industry’s current woes and its dark past. Firestone is not totally to blame for deaths from tread separations on Ford Explorers‚ Robinson said. "The real problem is vehicle stability‚" he says of the popular SUV design that lets passengers ride tall in the saddle.
Looking up from his computer Calcagnie says‚ "Instead of lowering the engine mounting on the Explorer‚ Ford raised it."
"Ford made a conscious decision not to lower the center of gravity in 1995‚" Robinson adds. "They developed a safer system but decided for cost reasons not to implement it. I’ve seen the memo but its under a protective order." (Ford spokeswoman Susan Krusel replies that Ford turns over all documents in liability cases except financial data‚ computer programming formulas and product planning information: "We haven’t had a plaintiffs’ lawyer charge us with inappropriately seeking trade secret protection on the Explorer in 10 years.")
Sitting near a reconstructed Pinto amidst a carnage of sport utility metal‚ Robinson said "This whole secrecy debate goes back to the Nixon years."
The critical moment came on April 27‚ 1971‚ Robinson says‚ during a secret meeting held in the Oval Office between President Nixon‚ auto maker president Henry Ford II and then-chairman of Chrysler Corp. Lee lacocca. The auto makers were concerned because times were beginning to look tough in Motor City. Japanese companies Honda‚ Toyota and Datsun were introducing curiously small‚ fuel-efficient cars that challenged the market dominance of the Big Three‚ Ford‚ General Motors Corp. and Chrysler.
And the federal government wasn’t helping. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was proposing 70 safety and auto emissions standards that threatened to increase costs and erode the dominance of the Big Three.
Evidence of the closed-door meeting is eerily contained in Nixon’s secret White House tapes and in 1991 depositions taken of domestic affairs assistant and former White House Counsel John Ehrlichman‚ who would later spend time in prison for his Watergate role...