Pain and Punishment
LILLY GRAY bought a new Ford Pinto in November 1971. Six months later she set out on a drive to Barstow, California, accompanied by thirteen-year-old Richard Grimshaw. While going up the freeway exit ramp, the car stalled; moments later another car slammed into its rear, driving the gas tank forward and impaling it on a bolt. The passenger compartment was engulfed in flames. Mrs. Gray was killed, and Richard suffered permanently disfiguring burns over his face and body.
He sued Ford. The placement of the Pinto's gas tank behind the rear axle, his lawyer argued, made it unsafe in rear-end collisions. Inexpensive changes would have protected against the danger. Ford responded that the car had a reasonably safe overall design and met federal standards for crashworthiness in effect at the time.
A jury awarded Richard $2.5 million in compensation for his injuries, much of it for the pain he had suffered, and a further stunning $125 million in punitive damages against Ford, which the trial judge cut to $3.5 million. Ford did not bother to contest the award for Richard's pain but it did appeal the punitive award, insisting that it had had no evil motive.
In 1981, a full nine years after the accident, the court of appeals conceded as much but sustained the jury award anyway. California law, it declared, allows punitive damages even if the defendant had no "actual intent to harm the plaintiff or others." All that is necessary is "conscious disregard"