Historic passing

June 15, 2010
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This post was written by IL managing editor Betsy Brockett.

Many people may not know attorney Michael Cosentino, including young lawyers. But thirty years ago at age 44, he prosecuted Ford Motor Co., marking the first time a corporation was criminally charged for the way it designed and manufactured a product. Ford had been charged with three counts of reckless homicide for the deaths of three teen girls who died when the Ford Pinto they were in caught fire when it was rear-ended. Ford was acquitted, and the case was major news throughout the world at the time.

Mr. Cosentino died Monday.

I’m not a lawyer, but his actions impacted me. How? Because the case was venued from Elkhart County to Pulaski County. I was a junior in high school when lawyers and numerous media moved to Winamac (population 2,500 then and now) for 13 weeks. As a busy 16-year-old, I admit I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the goings on at the courthouse, despite the fact that local counsel was a friend’s dad and another friend’s mom was on the jury.

Fast forward 25 years. I wrote an article looking back at the case for Indiana Lawyer. I drove to Elkhart County to meet Mr. Cosentino, who had retired in December 2002 to private practice after seven terms as prosecutor. He was very generous with his time as he revisited that case for me, noting how it all began as a criminal case and ended as a products liability case.

He said he didn’t believe criminal law should intercede in such situations except in rare cases. Yet, he told me, “When civil law has no impact, that verdicts don’t mean anything, the criminal law should intervene.”

And so he made history. Even then, 25 years after the case was tried, he was still receiving calls from law schools throughout the nation about it.

When I talked today with Elkhart Circuit Judge Terry Shewmaker, who worked with Mr. Cosentino for more than 20 years, he had many good things to say and how Mr. Cosentino shaped many young lawyers through the years. He also noted how Mr. Cosentino was an avid fisherman and “he loved his family.” I remember during our interview he talked about the Ford case’s impact on his wife, Dianne, and their sons, who were 10 and 8 during the trial.

With Michael Cosentino’s passing, our legal community has lost not only a good lawyer but a historic resource.

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  • I remember
    I was a student at Valpo Law School when our criminal law professor and several classmates who were on Law Review were involved in the Pinto case. I and a fellow student, Tom Parry, offered to help and were given the task of researching precedent in other states on the issue of whether a corporation could be considered a "person" for purposes of criminal prosecution....a key issue in the case and a question of first impression in Indiana. We spent an afternoon in the library (pre-computer research) plowing through copies of legal reference books from all fifty states and found substantial precedent that said "yes" and... in the end.. that was the court's ruling....
    The entire trial became quite a vicarious experience for our whole class as we awaited the daily reports from our classmates who were clerking for the prosecution staff.
  • thanks for the memory
    Mike was a good prosecutor and served his public well.

    -- northern indiana resident

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  1. It's a big fat black mark against the US that they radicalized a lot of these Afghan jihadis in the 80s to fight the soviets and then when they predictably got around to biting the hand that fed them, the US had to invade their homelands, install a bunch of corrupt drug kingpins and kleptocrats, take these guys and torture the hell out of them. Why for example did the US have to sodomize them? Dubya said "they hate us for our freedoms!" Here, try some of that freedom whether you like it or not!!! Now they got even more reasons to hate us-- lets just keep bombing the crap out of their populations, installing more puppet regimes, arming one faction against another, etc etc etc.... the US is becoming a monster. No wonder they hate us. Here's my modest recommendation. How about we follow "Just War" theory in the future. St Augustine had it right. How about we treat these obvious prisoners of war according to the Geneva convention instead of torturing them in sadistic and perverted ways.

  2. As usual, John is "spot-on." The subtle but poignant points he makes are numerous and warrant reflection by mediators and users. Oh but were it so simple.

  3. ACLU. Way to step up against the police state. I see a lot of things from the ACLU I don't like but this one is a gold star in its column.... instead of fighting it the authorities should apologize and back off.

  4. Duncan, It's called the RIGHT OF ASSOCIATION and in the old days people believed it did apply to contracts and employment. Then along came title vii.....that aside, I believe that I am free to work or not work for whomever I like regardless: I don't need a law to tell me I'm free. The day I really am compelled to ignore all the facts of social reality in my associations and I blithely go along with it, I'll be a slave of the state. That day is not today......... in the meantime this proposed bill would probably be violative of 18 usc sec 1981 that prohibits discrimination in contracts... a law violated regularly because who could ever really expect to enforce it along the millions of contracts made in the marketplace daily? Some of these so-called civil rights laws are unenforceable and unjust Utopian Social Engineering. Forcing people to love each other will never work.

  5. I am the father of a sweet little one-year-old named girl, who happens to have Down Syndrome. To anyone who reads this who may be considering the decision to terminate, please know that your child will absolutely light up your life as my daughter has the lives of everyone around her. There is no part of me that condones abortion of a child on the basis that he/she has or might have Down Syndrome. From an intellectual standpoint, however, I question the enforceability of this potential law. As it stands now, the bill reads in relevant part as follows: "A person may not intentionally perform or attempt to perform an abortion . . . if the person knows that the pregnant woman is seeking the abortion solely because the fetus has been diagnosed with Down syndrome or a potential diagnosis of Down syndrome." It includes similarly worded provisions abortion on "any other disability" or based on sex selection. It goes so far as to make the medical provider at least potentially liable for wrongful death. First, how does a medical provider "know" that "the pregnant woman is seeking the abortion SOLELY" because of anything? What if the woman says she just doesn't want the baby - not because of the diagnosis - she just doesn't want him/her? Further, how can the doctor be liable for wrongful death, when a Child Wrongful Death claim belongs to the parents? Is there any circumstance in which the mother's comparative fault will not exceed the doctor's alleged comparative fault, thereby barring the claim? If the State wants to discourage women from aborting their children because of a Down Syndrome diagnosis, I'm all for that. Purporting to ban it with an unenforceable law, however, is not the way to effectuate this policy.

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