Crystal L. Wickersham; Crystal L. Wickersham, as personal representative of the Estate of John Harley Wickersham Jr., Plaintiffs,
Ford Motor Company, Defendant. Appellate Case No. 2018-001124
January 29, 2019
CERTIFICATION FROM THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE
Kathleen Chewning Barnes, Barnes Law Firm, LLC; Ronnie Lanier
Crosby, Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick,
P.A., both of Hampton, for Plaintiffs.
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.
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.
Thomas Culbreath and Jessica Ann Waller, Gallivan White &
Boyd, P.A., of Columbia, for amicus curiae the Product
Liability Advisory Counsel, Inc.
L. Eppes, Eppes & Plumblee, P.A., of Greenville, for
amicus curiae the South Carolina Association for Justice.
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.
Facts and Procedural History
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.
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.
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 ...