Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co.

Decision Date29 May 1981
Citation174 Cal.Rptr. 348,119 Cal.App.3d 757
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
PartiesRichard GRIMSHAW, Minor, etc., Plaintiff and Appellant, v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY, etc., et al., Defendants and Appellants. Carmen GRAY et al., etc., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY, etc., et al., Defendants and Appellants. Civ. 20095.

McCutchen, Black, Verleger & Shea, G. Richard Doty, Robert G. Damus, Judd L. Jordan and Harrington, Foxx, Dubrow & Canter, Los Angeles, for defendant and appellant Ford Motor Company.

Hews, Munoz & Howard, Inc., Arthur N. Hews, Santa Ana, Horvitz, Greines & Poster, Ellis J. Horvitz, Michelle Van Cleave, Encino, and Gerald H. B. Kane, Jr., Redondo Beach, for plaintiff and appellant Richard Grimshaw.

Rose, Klein & Marias, Byron M. Rabin, Los Angeles, and Leonard Sacks, Northridge, for plaintiffs and appellants Carmen, Cauleen and Challie Gray.

TAMURA, Acting Presiding Justice.

A 1972 Ford Pinto hatchback automobile unexpectedly stalled on a freeway, erupting into flames when it was rear ended by a car proceeding in the same direction. Mrs. Lilly Gray, the driver of the Pinto, suffered fatal burns and 13-year-old Richard Grimshaw, a passenger in the Pinto, suffered severe and permanently disfiguring burns on his face and entire body. Grimshaw and the heirs of Mrs. Gray (Grays) sued Ford Motor Company and others. Following a six-month jury trial, verdicts were returned in favor of plaintiffs against Ford Motor Company. Grimshaw was awarded $2,516,000 compensatory damages and $125 million punitive damages; the Grays were awarded $559,680 in compensatory damages. 1 On Ford's motion for a new trial, Grimshaw was required to remit all but $3 1/2 million of the punitive award as a condition of denial of the motion.

Ford appeals from the judgment and from an order denying its motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict as to punitive damages. Grimshaw appeals from the order granting the conditional new trial and from the amended judgment entered pursuant to the order. The Grays have cross-appealed from the judgment and from an order denying leave to amend their complaint to seek punitive damages.

Ford assails the judgment as a whole, assigning a multitude of errors and irregularities, including misconduct of counsel, but the primary thrust of its appeal is directed against the punitive damage award. Ford contends that the punitive award was statutorily unauthorized and constitutionally invalid. In addition, it maintains that

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the evidence was insufficient to support a finding of malice or corporate responsibility for malice. Grimshaw's cross-appeal challenges the validity of the new trial order and the conditional reduction of the punitive damage award. The Grays' cross-appeal goes to the validity of an order denying them leave to amend their wrongful death complaint to seek punitive damages.


Since sufficiency of the evidence is in issue only regarding the punitive damage award, we make no attempt to review the evidence bearing on all of the litigated issues. Subject to amplification when we deal with specific issues, we shall set out the basic facts pertinent to these appeals in accordance with established principles of appellate review: We will view the evidence in the light most favorable to the parties prevailing below, resolving all conflicts in their favor, and indulging all reasonable inferences favorable to them. (Aceves v. Regal Pale Brewing Co., 24 Cal.3d 502, 507, 156 Cal.Rptr. 41, 595 P.2d 619; Nestle v. City of Santa Monica, 6 Cal.3d 920, 925, 101 Cal.Rptr. 568, 496 P.2d 480.)

The Accident:

In November 1971, the Grays purchased a new 1972 Pinto hatchback manufactured by Ford in October 1971. The Grays had trouble with the car from the outset. During the first few months of ownership, they had to return the car to the dealer for repairs a number of times. Their car problems included excessive gas and oil consumption, down shifting of the automatic transmission, lack of power, and occasional stalling. It was later learned that the stalling and excessive fuel consumption were caused by a heavy carburetor float.

On May 28, 1972, Mrs. Gray, accompanied by 13-year-old Richard Grimshaw, set out in the Pinto from Anaheim for Barstow to meet Mr. Gray. The Pinto was then six months old and had been driven approximately 3,000 miles. Mrs. Gray stopped in San Bernardino for gasoline, got back onto the freeway (Interstate 15) and proceeded toward her destination at 60-65 miles per hour. As she approached the Route 30 off-ramp where traffic was congested, she moved from the outer fast lane to the middle lane of the freeway. Shortly after this lane change, the Pinto suddenly stalled and coasted to a halt in the middle lane. It was later established that the carburetor float had become so saturated with gasoline that it suddenly sank, opening the float chamber and causing the engine to flood and stall. A car traveling immediately behind the Pinto was able to swerve and pass it but the driver of a 1962 Ford Galaxie was unable to avoid colliding with the Pinto. The Galaxie had been traveling from 50 to 55 miles per hour but before the impact had been braked to a speed of from 28 to 37 miles per hour.

At the moment of impact, the Pinto caught fire and its interior was engulfed in flames. According to plaintiffs' expert, the impact of the Galaxie had driven the Pinto's gas tank forward and caused it to be punctured by the flange or one of the bolts on the differential housing so that fuel sprayed from the punctured tank and entered the passenger compartment through gaps resulting from the separation of the rear wheel well sections from the floor pan. By the time the Pinto came to rest after the collision, both occupants had sustained serious burns. When they emerged from the vehicle, their clothing was almost completely burned off. Mrs. Gray died a few days later of congestive heart failure as a result of the burns. Grimshaw managed to survive but only through heroic medical measures. He has undergone numerous and extensive surgeries and skin grafts and must undergo additional surgeries over the next 10 years. He lost portions of several fingers on his left hand and portions of his left ear, while his face required many skin grafts from various portions of his body. Because Ford does not contest the amount of compensatory damages awarded to Grimshaw and the Grays, no purpose would be served by further description of the injuries suffered by Grimshaw or the damages sustained by the Grays.

Design of the Pinto Fuel System:

In 1968, Ford began designing a new subcompact automobile which ultimately

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became the Pinto. Mr. Iacocca, then a Ford Vice President, conceived the project and was its moving force. Ford's objective was to build a car at or below 2,000 pounds to sell for no more than $2,000.

Ordinarily marketing surveys and preliminary engineering studies precede the styling of a new automobile line. Pinto, however, was a rush project, so that styling preceded engineering and dictated engineering design to a greater degree than usual. Among the engineering decisions dictated by styling was the placement of the fuel tank. It was then the preferred practice in Europe and Japan to locate the gas tank over the rear axle in subcompacts because a small vehicle has less "crush space" between the rear axle and the bumper than larger cars. The Pinto's styling, however, required the tank to be placed behind the rear axle leaving only 9 or 10 inches of "crush space" far less than in any other American automobile or Ford overseas subcompact. In addition, the Pinto was designed so that its bumper was little more than a chrome strip, less substantial than the bumper of any other American car produced then or later. The Pinto's rear structure also lacked reinforcing members known as "hat sections" (2 longitudinal side members) and horizontal cross-members running between them such as were found in cars of larger unitized construction and in all automobiles produced by Ford's overseas operations. The absence of the reinforcing members rendered the Pinto less crush resistant than other vehicles. Finally, the differential housing selected for the Pinto had an exposed flange and a line of exposed bolt heads. These protrusions were sufficient to puncture a gas tank driven forward against the differential upon rear impact.

Crash Tests:

During the development of the Pinto, prototypes were built and tested. Some were "mechanical prototypes" which duplicated mechanical features of the design but not its appearance while others, referred to as "engineering prototypes," were true duplicates of the design car. These prototypes as well as two production Pintos were crash tested by Ford to determine, among other things, the integrity of the fuel system in rear-end accidents. Ford also conducted the tests to see if the Pinto as designed would meet a proposed federal regulation requiring all automobiles manufactured in 1972 to be able to withstand a 20-mile-per-hour fixed barrier impact without significant fuel spillage and all automobiles manufactured after January 1, 1973, to withstand a 30-mile-per-hour fixed barrier impact without significant fuel spillage.

The crash tests revealed that the Pinto's fuel system as designed could not meet the 20-mile-per-hour proposed standard. Mechanical prototypes struck from the rear with a moving barrier at 21-miles-per-hour caused the fuel tank to be driven forward and to be punctured, causing fuel leakage in excess of the standard prescribed by the proposed regulation. A production Pinto crash tested at 21-miles-per-hour into a fixed barrier caused the fuel neck to be torn from the gas tank and the tank to be punctured by a bolt head on the differential housing. In at least one test, spilled fuel entered the driver's compartment through gaps resulting from the...

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