Ford Faces Trial Over Suicide Tied to Crash Injury

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By Martina Barash

July 11 — Ford Motor Co. can't sidestep trial in a widow's wrongful-death suit alleging that persistent, severe pain from an air bag deployment led her husband to commit suicide, a federal district court has said ( Wickersham v. Ford Motor Co., 2016 BL 221024, D.S.C., No. 9:14-cv-00459, 7/9/16 ).

A fact issue for a jury remains on the issue of whether John Harley Wickersham Jr.'s suicide was the result of an “uncontrollable impulse” that would bring the claims outside the general rule in South Carolina that defendants aren't liable in suicide cases, the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina said July 9.

Judge David C. Norton also said the plaintiff could show an alternative feasible design—required to prove a design defect—by pointing to a type of algorithm for timing air bag deployments used by other automakers. The plaintiff need not produce the actual algorithm, “as this would constitute the production of a prototype, which is clearly not required in other instances,” the court said.

Ford contended punitive damages shouldn't be available because there was reasonable disagreement about the existence of a defect, but the court rejected that argument as well.

Wickersham's 2010 Ford Escape struck a tree on the front passenger side in February 2011, according to the court. A delay between the deployment of the seat belt pretensioners and the air bag allegedly allowed his body to be struck by the air bag as it was deploying.

He sustained broken bones in his face and skull, and eventually lost an eye as a result of his injuries. Doctors treated him for pain using medication and a nerve block, but the treatments weren't very effective.

Wickersham had a previous history of bipolar disorder and suicidal thoughts, which had recurred in the month before the accident and had responded to treatment.

In April 2012, Wickersham was hospitalized for suicidal thoughts. He was subsequently released, and in July 2012 he committed suicide.

Trial is set for Aug. 15, 2016.

Don C. Gibson, who practices in North Charleston, S.C., and Peters Murdaugh Parker Eltzroth and Detrick P.A. represent the plaintiff.

Turner Padget Graham and Laney P.A. represents Ford.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martina S. Barash in Washington at mbarash@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Steven Patrick at spatrick@bna.com and Jeffrey D. Koelemay at jkoelemay@bna.com

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