1970s >> 1978 >> no-885-may-1978

The Price of a Life

Anyone asked to think of a product of capitalist society that is designed to kill would probably think of armaments, in all their many forms. But if it were suggested that capitalism also produces quite ordinary products such as motor cars, deliberately calculating that they are going to kill a certain proportion of their users, most people would not believe it. But it happens to be true.

One thing most workers would agree on, though, is that everything has its price; work, play, necessities, luxuries, food, drink etc. — all have this in common. Although most workers don’t realise it, above all capitalism prices a worker’s labour-power; the price being of course, wages. But capitalism does not stop at pricing a man’s ability to work, it also prices human lives themselves. In a remarkable legal case in the USA the horrifying fact was revealed that the Ford Motor Company decided it was cheaper (more profitable) to kill and maim people than incorporate a small design change in one of their models; a design change which would only cost something between $9-11 for each model.

The full details of this story of capitalism’s gross inhumanity in the search for profits was revealed in a report of the case in The Sunday Times (12/2/78). The Ford Pinto is one of a number of smaller American cars. It appears that the fuel tank for this car was (and in the case of those cars already on the road, still is) placed right at the rear. This meant that if hit from behind, even quite gently (a common accident) there was a strong chance of the petrol tank buckling, the petrol spilling out and the car bursting into flames. Several reports in the 1970s had pointed this out, and Ford were well aware of the risk. The car in which 13-year-old Richard Grimshaw was travelling was involved in just such an accident. The vehicle was hit from behind, the petrol tank exploded, and the driver was burnt to death. Richard however was “lucky” — he survived. Now 52 operations later (with more still to come) and horribly scarred for life, he has won his court case against Ford.

The jury in the case awarded Richard $128 million (roughly £66 million), punitive damages. That is, they not only gave Richard compensation for the injuries he suffered; they also punished Ford, imposing specially heavy damages. They did this because it was shown that Ford had killed and maimed deliberately. The Californian jury were presented with some shocking evidence, the results of detective work undertaken by Richard’s lawyers. In order to obtain this huge sum of damages it was not sufficient to show that the car had a design fault. Ford knew all about this and anyway they had a defence — the car met all government safety standards at the time. (This would not have been sufficient to prevent Richard getting a more normal level of damages — the current rate against Ford in the USA for this sort of horrible injury seems to be between $500,000 and $1 million). But Richard’s lawyers discovered that not only were Ford aware of the potential hazard of the car, but that they deliberately calculated the cost involved in altering the design, and the cost involved in terms of personal suffering) if they did not alter the design.

Ford’s calculations were that approximately 180 deaths and 180 serious injuries a year would result from the faulty design (though some estimates put the figure nearer to 1800 deaths a year and one journal estimates the death rate at 5000 a year). They then worked out the likely “cost” of each death or injury. They did this by adding up such items as victims’ pain and suffering ($10,000) fatal burn injuries ($67,000) medical expenses, loss of future earnings etc. Based on these grisly figures (and not forgetting the costs of damage to the car!) Ford put the total benefit (“savings”) of a design change at slightly less than $50 million. Let The Sunday Times take up the story of how this particular capitalist enterprise calculated from there:

     The figure of $50 million was set against the costs— $11 million worth of modifications per Ford vehicle sold—of $137 million. That, Ford engineers observed, was almost three times greater than the benefits, even using a number of highly favourable benefit assumptions! They could not envisage any development which would make compliance . . . cost effective.

The further evidence that Richard’s lawyers were able to produce to support their claim for punitive damages came from — a “star witness”. This was H.F. Copp, a retired senior design engineer, who had worked with Ford for 20 years. (The fact that he had retired was rather important — otherwise presumably he would not have dared give evidence against Ford for fear of being unemployed for life). This is how the Sunday Times continues its report

    Copp had worked on Ford’s successful Capri range in which the petrol tank rode, saddle-style, above the back axle; he was certain this was the safest design. . . . What could a designer like him do, Richard’s lawyers asked, if “corporate management” specified the location of the petrol tank? “Follow corporate policy” Copp replied. Had Ford’s top management, in fact, issued a design directive for the Pinto’s tank? “Behind the rear axle, beneath the floor.” Could he estimate how much extra it would have cost to place the Pinto’s tank above the axle? “About $9 more per car.”

So why didn’t Ford introduce the safer design that Copp (and others) advised? Quite simple really — a Ford engineer explained that in the “ferociously competitive small-car market” Ford had to be extremely price-conscious (price here referring to cars of course — not human lives). The car was governed by the 2000 limit: “. . . it was not to weigh more than 2000 pounds and not to cost more than $2000 . . .  An increase in production costs could price a compact car out of its market”.

So there are the simple economics; no frills, no attempts to hide it, no subtlety. Naked concern for sales means that the price of a human life is weighted in the scales against the price of a car; in this instance the human life is found to be the lighter.

Of course the very heavy damages awarded are little comfort to Richard. As poor Richard himself said after the case: “If I had a choice of whether to take this money and go through all those burns and stuff or just lead a normal life, then I’d lead a normal life”. The lesson for the world working class from this story is obvious. A society that coldly evaluates the cost of killing or maiming a human being (quite apart from the horrors of war) and decides that it is more profitable to do so than to spend a miserable $9-11 a car is no society for human beings at all; it is a society OF human beings FOR profits. If the tragedy of Richard Grimshaw and many others teaches this lesson, then perhaps his sufferings have not been totally in vain.

Ronnie Warrington