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$2.75 mln verdict against Ford over post-crash suicide vacated

3 minute read

The Ford logo is seen on a Ford F-150 truck parked in Burbank, California April 14, 2011. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

(Reuters) - A federal appeals court has vacated a $2.75 million verdict against Ford Motor Co in favor of a woman who said her husband committed suicide as a result of injuries he suffered allegedly as a result of a defective airbag.

The unanimous panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that the trial judge must reconsider his ruling denying Ford's motion for judgment as a matter of law on plaintiff Crystal Wickersham's wrongful death claim, and hold a new trial if it is not granted.

The ruling does not set aside a $1.9 million award for personal injury.

Kathleen Barnes of Barnes Law Firm, a lawyer for Wickersham, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Nor did Ford or its attorney Adam Charnes of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton.

The case stems from a 2011 accident in which Wickersham's husband, John Wickersham, crashed into a tree and suffered significant facial injuries, resulting in multiple surgeries including the removal of one eye and the loss of his ability to smell or chew food, according to the opinion.

Wickersham had a history of depression, bipolar disorder and suicidal thoughts, which worsened after the accident, according to the opinion. He committed suicide through an overdose of methadone in July 2012.

Crystal Wickersham sued Ford both individually and as representative of John Wickersham's estate in South Carolina state court, alleging that his injuries were caused by the airbag deploying too late.

Ford removed the case to federal court and moved for summary judgment on the wrongful death claim, arguing that under South Carolina law, suicide is presumed to be unforeseeable, and that a defective design cannot be its proximate cause.

U.S. District Judge David Norton of the District of South Carolina denied that motion, saying there was an exception to that general rule if the defective design gave rise to an "uncontrollable impulse" resulting in suicide.

Following the verdict, Norton denied Ford's motion for judgment as a matter of law on the claim, and Ford appealed.

The 4th Circuit certified to South Carolina's Supreme Court the question of whether the state recognized an "uncontrollable impulse" exception.

The state court answered that, rather than recognize an exception, the state did not have a general rule that suicide is not foreseeable in the first place. Instead, it said that a wrongful death claim can succeed if the plaintiff can show that the suicide was foreseeable.

Circuit Judge Henry Floyd wrote Thursday that Norton's instructions to the jury, which first explained the general rule that suicide is not foreseeable and then explained an uncontrollable impulse exception, could have "misled" the jury to believe "it could substitute a separate 'uncontrollable impulse' analysis that lacked the typical components of proximate cause."

He said that Norton must therefore reconsider his denial of Ford's motion for judgment as a matter of law, and hold a new trial on the wrongful death claim if he again denied it.

Floyd was joined by Circuit Judges Paul Niemeyer and Diana Motz.

The case is Wickersham v. Ford Motor Co, 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 17-2131.

For Wickersham: Kathleen Barnes of Barnes Law Firm

For Ford: Adam Charnes of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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