10 Cover-ups That Just Made Things Worse

The Ford Pinto
Patty Ramge appears dejected as she looks at her Ford Pinto where she put a sign on the rear of the automobile because of the firey accidents involving Pintos. © Bettmann/CORBIS

Except for cigarettes and thalidomide, it's hard to think of a product with a worse reputation for safety than the Ford Pinto, introduced in the 1971 model year [source: Motavalli]. But even though the car sold well, Ford knew that it carried inside it a serious design problem. When the car had been deep into its development cycle, low-speed rear-end crash testing had revealed that the fuel tank's filler neck had a tendency to tear away and spill gasoline under the car. Additionally, the tank itself was easily punctured by bolts protruding from the differential and nearby brackets.

It would have cost an additional $11 per car to fix the problems, but Ford management decided to do nothing, figuring that it cost less to pay off Pinto owners whose cars caught on fire [source: Wojdyla]. Unfortunately for them, a dogged investigative reporter, Mark Dowie of Mother Jones magazine, was willing to sift through the mountain of paperwork in the U.S. Department of Transportation's file cabinets where the company had buried the problem. He unearthed a memo in which the company calculated that settling burn victim lawsuits would save the company $70 million over installing the parts in the Pintos [source: Motavalli].

After Dowie's expose was published, a jury in Orange County, Calif. awarded $125 million in damages to a man who'd been injured in a burning Pinto. Though the penalty was later reduced to $3 million, it was the beginning of the end for the car and the start of a public-relations disaster that took Ford years to get past [source: Wojdyla].