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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
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Lessons Learned 40 Years Ago Are Forgotten-Safety Suffers in the Wake of Tort Reform

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First introduced in 1971, the Ford Pinto was sold in North America with a deadly design defect – the gas tank would explode in rear-end impacts, resulting in deadly fires. Ford was aware of this design defect and the cost to fix the problem was relatively small. Sadly, the company decided to ignore the defect – an $11 plastic tray. They determined that many people would not sue and that the few that actually did would not cost them as much as a recall. Quoting federal data, “Ford’s director of auto safety estimated that equipping the Pinto with the $11 part would prevent 180 burn deaths, 180 serious burn injuries and 2,100 burned cars, for a total cost of $137 million. Paying out $200,000 per death, $67,000 per injury and $700 per vehicle would cost only $49.15 million.” It may not be this cold-blooded, but the fact still remains that Ford refused to redesign the defect in lieu of corporate greed because the company “bean counters” determined the costs of fixing the design defect was greater than the costs of paying out expected wrongful death lawsuits. Again, their bottom line was greed over safety.

Ironically, Ford’s accountants failed in their mathematical calculations. In the California case of Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Company, an exploding Pinto accident resulted in a 13-year-old boy being burned over 90 percent of his body. The jury awarded exactly the $130 million Ford calculated that it would save. The punitive damage portion of the award was dramatically reduced; however, this case illustrates the importance of punitive damages. Tort reformers continue pushing to limit punitive damages in California. They would like to cap punitive damages to three times the amount of compensatory damages awarded in a case, and cap awards for non-economic damages at $250,000. This would have resulted in a a 99% reduction of the damage award in the Grimshaw case. Fortunately, for Californians, Bill 2740 failed in May 2010.

The Pinto, although not fondly remembered, has become a symbol of auto safety compromise. Capping damages for the intentionally considering corporate profit (greed?) over consumer safety, using comparative cost graphs and charts, is unconscionable. Ford’s calculated analysis was that the cost of safety repairs exceeded the potential cost of lawsuit payouts. How cold is that!? Tort reform has virtually eliminated punitive damage awards in many States. This permits companies to do the same dangerous math that Ford engaged in 40 years ago. Only, today, they can do so with much greater accuracy and without worrying whether they will get hit with eight or nine figure punitive damage awards. That scares the hell out of me and it should scare the hell out of each of you. Without having to worry about potential large damage awards, corporate interests will put profits ahead of safety, every time. How any individual citizen can support tort reform or tort reform candidates in light of these sobering conclusions is beyond comprehension!

In a column by Jamie Kitman, the attorney addresses how current tort reform may actually lead to another Pinto-esque problem in the future. He says:

Tort reform seeks to eliminate what is often the only check — and redress — we have against corporate wrongdoing. If the tort reformers have their way, the price of killing innocents with products known to be defective and potentially lethal will fall with inevitably, disastrous consequences.

We should be able to buy a vehicle free of [dangerous] defect. We certainly have a right to buy a vehicle that doesn’t explode on contact! We should be able to drink water or swim in it without worrying about pollutants or contaminants. We cannot count on corporate America to keep us safe; compensatory and punitive damages can help do so. Supporters of tort reform say that your life is worth a quarter million dollars. Do you agree? These artificially low limits permit corporate ‘Goliaths’ to cut corners on safety because they are no longer concerned that they will be slain by citizens ‘David’ . Limiting damage recoveries through tort reform prevents corporate America from being held accountable for its callous disregard for safety, for its carelessness and/or negligence. It socializes the value of life.

And what of the 7th Amendment to the Constitution? Don’t we have a right to a fair trial by jury on all issues? Or, are we willing, for the sake of corporate profit, to have high-paid lobbyists decide the value and/or quality of our lives? Lawsuits and lawsuit damages are our last defense against dangerous products and those corporate interests who would place profits over safety. It really is this simple; because of lawsuit damages recovered 40 years ago, a dangerous vehicle was removed from the marketplace and today’s vehicles are made much safer. Tort reform seeks to remove your safety net; we must stop being complacent against the onslaught of corporate dollars in political campaigns. We, each and every one of us, must fight for our right to be safe.

Mark Bello has thirty-three years experience as a trial lawyer and twelve years as an underwriter and situational analyst in the lawsuit funding industry. He is the owner and founder of Lawsuit Financial Corporation which helps provide legal finance cash flow solutions and consulting when necessities of life litigation funding is needed by a plaintiff involved in pending, personal injury, litigation. Bello is a Justice Pac member of the American Association for Justice, Sustaining and Justice Pac member of the Michigan Association for Justice, Business Associate of the Florida, Tennessee, and Colorado Associations for Justice, a member of the American Bar Association, the State Bar of Michigan and the Injury Board.

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    Great article and I couldn’t agree with you more. North Carolina is currently considering, and is expected to pass, tort reform legislation like that adopted in many states. It would include not only a cap on punitivie damages, but zero liability for emergency room physicians absent intentional wrongdoing and an absolute bar to any products liability case involving a drug as long as the FDA approved it. We can only hope more people read articles like yours than listen to the 30 second sound bites from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce so they understand how their rights, and possibly even their very lives, are at stake in this debate.