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Wickersham v. Ford Motor Co.

Supreme Court of South Carolina

July 24, 2019

Crystal L. Wickersham; Crystal L. Wickersham, as personal representative of the Estate of John Harley Wickersham Jr., Plaintiffs,
v.
Ford Motor Company, Defendant. Appellate Case No. 2018-001124

          Heard January 29, 2019

         ON CERTIFICATION FROM THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

         CERTIFIED QUESTION

          Kathleen Chewning Barnes, Barnes Law Firm, LLC; Ronnie Lanier Crosby, Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick, P.A., both of Hampton, for Plaintiffs.

          Adam H. Charnes and Thurston H. Webb, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP, of Winston-Salem, NC; Joseph Kenneth Carter Jr. and Carmelo Barone Sammataro, Turner Padget Graham & Laney P.A., of Columbia, for Defendant.

          Steve A. Matthews, Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, P.A., of Columbia; Victor E. Schwartz, Cary Silverman, and Phil Goldberg, Shook Hardy & Bacon LLP, of Washington, D.C., all for amicus curiae the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Inc.

          Gray Thomas Culbreath and Jessica Ann Waller, Gallivan White & Boyd, P.A., of Columbia, for amicus curiae the Product Liability Advisory Counsel, Inc.

          Frank L. Eppes, Eppes & Plumblee, P.A., of Greenville, for amicus curiae the South Carolina Association for Justice.

          FEW JUSTICE.

         Responding to two questions certified to us by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, we hold traditional principles of proximate cause govern whether a personal representative has a valid claim for wrongful death from suicide, and whether-in a crashworthiness case-a person's own actions that enhance his injuries, as opposed to those that cause the accident itself, should be compared to the tortious conduct of a defendant in determining liability.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         John Harley Wickersham Jr. was seriously injured in an automobile accident. After months of severe pain from the injuries he received in the accident, he committed suicide. See Wickersham v. Ford Motor Co., 194 F.Supp.3d 434, 435-37 (D.S.C. 2016) (a complete explanation of the facts of this case). His widow filed lawsuits for wrongful death, survival, and loss of consortium against Ford Motor Company in state circuit court. She alleged that defects in the airbag system in Mr. Wickersham's Ford Escape enhanced his injuries, increasing the severity of his pain, which in turn proximately caused his suicide. She included causes of action for negligence, strict liability, and breach of warranty.

         Ford removed the cases to the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina. Ford then filed a motion for summary judgment in the wrongful death suit, arguing Mrs. Wickersham has no wrongful death claim under South Carolina law because Mr. Wickersham's suicide was an intervening act that could not be proximately caused by a defective airbag. The district court denied Ford's motion. 194 F.Supp.3d at 448. The court ruled Mrs. Wickersham could prevail on the wrongful death claim if she proved the enhanced injuries Mr. Wickersham sustained in the accident as a result of the defective airbag caused severe pain that led to an "uncontrollable impulse" to commit suicide. Ford renewed the motion during and after trial, but the district court denied both motions.

         During trial, the parties disputed the cause of Mr. Wickersham's enhanced injuries. Mrs. Wickersham alleged the defective airbag caused them, while Ford argued Mr. Wickersham ...


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