A district court has affirmed that a woman whose husband killed himself more than a year after a devastating car accident will indeed recover a seven-figure judgement against the automaker while another part of the groundbreaking liability suit heads back for a new trial.
“The sole question is going to be whether this jury agrees with the last jury that the suicide was causally connected and what amount of damages would be awarded,” said Ronnie Crosby of Parker Law Group.
Crosby represents Crystal Wickersham, the widow of John Wickersham, Jr., a pharmacist who lost an eye and suffered extensive facial injuries after his Ford Escape struck a curb on a rain-slicked road, went airborne and crashed into a tree.
The 2011 accident left the driver with the need for multiple surgeries and continuing pain, the medications from which rendered him unable to do his job. Worries about medical bills came to a head the following year as his Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act insurance ended.
“The very month that his COBRA ran out from work is when he committed suicide,” Crosby said.
Wickersham’s wife sued Ford alleging that a defective airbag deployed at the wrong time causing the driver’s face to hit the gearshift lever. Initially, she prevailed in a 2016 trial in which jurors awarded $4.65 million despite deciding that the decedent bore 30 percent responsibility.
However, the auto giant appealed the matter, and the wrongful death portion of the judgment, which comprised a majority of the award, was ultimately thrown out by the Fourth Circuit based on clarifications by the South Carolina Supreme Court. The state’s high court indicated that there was no presumption that death by suicide is unforeseeable as a matter of law however its response prompted the Fourth Circuit to find that the district court did not apply the proper proximate cause framework to the case when it instructed the jury.
Still, the appellate ruling left intact the $1.9-million verdict on Wickersham’s survivorship claim. Moreover, the district court rejected the automaker’s assertion that the plaintiff showed no evidence that Wickersham’s taking his own life was something that the company could have envisaged as a result of the airbag problem and denied its motion for judgement on the issue as a matter of law.
“Contrary to Ford’s contention,” wrote Judge David Norton, “the court does not find it a far stretch for a jury to conclude that suicide was a specifically foreseeable consequence of a defectively deployed airbag when presented with evidence that airbags commonly result in facial injuries like Wickersham’s, that those injuries cause severe chronic pain, and that severe chronic pain is directly linked to suicidal ideation and suicide.”
Now, the two parties return to court for a renewed fight over the wrongful death claim.
“It is kind of an oddly postured case,” said Crosby. “There is a finding that the product is defective and that it caused his injuries. It is just whether or not it is causally related to the suicide.”
He said expert testimony and medical records have created an especially strong evidence chain for jurors to follow which may have been lacking in the handful of previous matters in South Carolina which attempted similar arguments linking suicide to injuries from a defective product.
“All the cases that preceded it were thrown out by a court before they ever got to a jury,” he said.
Crosby said that he’s optimistic about the matter which he said had already succeeded once in front of a jury.
“It is like anything else,” he said. “There are no guarantees but I feel good about it.”
Crosby listed J. Kenneth Carter, Jr. of Turner Padget Law as representing the defense. Neither Carter nor Ford’s media relations contact returned a call requesting comment for this story.