All too often we have seen corporations put their own bottom line ahead of consumer safety. The massive Toyota recall may be the most recent example of this, but it has been going on for decades.
A few examples:
(i) Firestone Tires: Firestone knew that there were serious problems with its tires by at least 1997, however it was not until 2000 that the tires were recalled. At least 271 people were killed and many more seriously injured before the tires were recalled. Firestone was undeterred by the NHTSA which had limited resources and only had the power to impose a $925,000.00 fine.
(ii) Chevy Malibu: General Motors knew for decades that the placement of the fuel tank in the Chevy Malibu created an unreasonable risk of explosion in rear end collisions. Internal GM documents showed that deaths resulting from the defect would cost the company $2.40 per car. The company had developed an improved design that would have done a better job of protecting the gas tank in collisions, but the design would cost the company $8.59 per car. GM Executives decided not to make the change (civil discovery exposed the internal GM memo confirming this).
(iii) Ford Pinto: Ford Motor Company knew that its Pinto was a dangerous vehicle since it was liable to explode in rear end collisions at speeds as low as 20 mph. An internal Ford Memo showed that the problem could be fixed for just $11 per car. The memo estimated that there would be 180 deaths and another 180 serious burn injuries. Ford concluded that it would cost more to fix the problem than to just let people die. Ford did not recall the 1.5 million Pintos on the road for another 5 years.
(iv) Guidant Heart Defibrillators: Guidant knew that a certain model of their defibrillators was defective and subject to short circuiting in 2002, and the company even changed the design of their device. However they continued to sell the dangerous defibrillators that had already been manufactured, and made no effort to tell doctors, patients or the Food and Drug Administration about the problem until 2005. There are many more examples of corporations knowing that their products are unsafe, but failing to act-these are just a few.
We cannot rely on federal and state regulatory agencies such as NHTSA and the FDA to protect consumers. These agencies are subject to the influence of lobbyists, under-staffed, have limited authority to impose penalties, and frequently there is a revolving door between those working for the agencies and those working for industry. Also, many consumer complaints are made directly to the corporation (or car dealership) rather than to the appropriate federal agency responsible for investigating safety.
The Maryland Association for Justice, and our friends at the American Association for Justice, will continue to fight to keep our courts open to those who are injured by dangerous products. As you are reading this, our legislative team is in Annapolis fighting against tort reform, and if favor of legislation that will preserve our injured clients access to the civil justice system. If you are not already a member of the Maryland Association for Justice, I urge you to join today.
“The rule is that if a party has his suspicion aroused but then deliberately omits to make further [i]nquiries, because he wishes to remain in ignorance, he is deemed to have knowledge…The rule that willful blindness is equivalent to knowledge is essential, and is found throughout the criminal law.”
State v. McCallum, 321 Md. 451, 459, 583 A.2d 250, 254 (Md.,1991)
Kevin I. Goldberg
President, Maryland Association for Justice