Exoneration of the Ford Motor Company on charges of reckless homicide in the so-called Pinto trial in Winimac, Ind., caused a figurative sigh of relief not only by the United States auto industry, but throughout the entire manufacturing establishment.
An Indiana farm country jury in the 10-week landmark trial found Ford "not guilty" in the deaths of three teen-age girls whose 1973-model Pinto exploded when a speeding van struck it in the rear Aug. 10, 1978.
Had the nation's No. 2 automaker lost the case, it would have set a precedent making manufacturers completely responsible for the total performance of products after they leave the factories.
It was the first time a US corporation had been tried on criminal charges.
At issue was the design of the Pinto's gas tank. The prosecution had contended the car was moving and that the speed of the impact would not have been sufficient to trigger an explosion if the car had been safely designed in the first place.
The defense, on the other hand, said the Pinto was stopped and that impact would have caused similar damage to any car at that time.
Thev verdict came on the fourth day of deliberations in the lengthy trial in the small Indiana farm community of Winimac and about 12 hours after jurors had filed into Judge Harold Staffeldt's court to report they were hopelessly deadlocked.
The judge, refusing to accept a hung jury in such a highly publicized case, sent them back into deliberation.
A major element in the case was the judge's absolute insistence on following the strictest rules of criminal evidence. As a result, charges the prosecution, it was unable to introduce the supportive evidence it needed in order to build its casE.
Ford Motor Company hired a hard-hitting defense team, headed by James Neal, a Watergate prosecutor, which won repeatedly in jousts with the prosecution and its witnesses.
Earlier this week, the Indiana prosecutor charged: "It has just been a matter of David and Goliath when it comes to money. They are the Goliath, and we are the David."
The prosecution consisted largely of Michael Cosentino and a volunteer staff of law-school professors and students.
The ford defense from the start appeared to outmaneuver the prosecution.
One of the defense's key witnesses, John E. Habberstad, a Spokane-based accident reconstructionist, showed films of test crashes which revealed that, when hit by 1972-model Chevrolet vans, many other cars had similar damage to that which befell the Ford Pinto in which the three girls perished. Involved in the tests, in addition to the Pinto, were a Chevrolet Vega and Impala, American Motors Gremlin, Dodge Colt, and Toyota Corolla.
Mr. Habberstat said the crash occurred at 55 m.p.h. with the Pinto stopped. The driver of the van was not seriously hurt. The prosecution all along had attacked the assumption that the speed of the van was in excess of 50 m.p.h. and that the Pinto was stopped beside the road.
The credibility of Ford management was an issue in the trial. The state pointed to the 1973 conviction of Ford on 350 counts of violating the Clear Air Act. However, Ford pointed out that it had pleaded no-contest to the charges of unauthorized maintenance on the vehicles during the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certification process.
When the company had become aware of the unauthorized work on the cars by some of its engineers, Ford informed the EPA of its move and asked that its application for certification be withdrawn.
As a result of the fracas, Ford paid a total of $7 million in fines and penalties.
The State of Indiana put a reckless-homicide law on the books July 1, 1978. Ford was charged with reckless homicide because, said the state, it had failed to warn owners of the risks of driving a Pinto and had failed to recall the cars early enough. As a matter of fact, Ford did recall 1.6 million Pintos under federal pressure to make adjusments to the fuel-tank system in the cars.
At one point early Thursday, defense attorney Neal asked the prosecutor if he would accept a majority verdict instead of a unanious one.
"Absolutely not. Not in Indiana," Mr. Cosentino replied.
While the maximum fine against Ford would have been $30,000, the case was significant because, if there had been a conviction, it would have encouraged a long string of similar lawsuits against not only Ford, but also the manufacturers of other consumer products.
It also could have had an impact upon a bevy of civil-liability cases against Ford, which now are pending.