Wickersham v. Ford Motor CoAnnotate this Case
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals certified two questions of law to the South Carolina Supreme Court. John 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. 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 federal district court, then moved for summary judgment in the wrongful death suit, arguing Mrs. Wickersham had 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, ruling 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. In returning a verdict for Mrs. Wickersham, the jury found the airbag was defective and proximately caused Mr. Wickersham's enhanced injuries and suicide. However, the jury also found Mr. Wickersham's actions in being out of position enhanced his injuries, and found his share of the fault was thirty percent. The district court entered judgment for Mrs. Wickersham, but denied Ford's request to reduce the damages based on Mr. Wickersham's fault. Ford filed motions to alter or amend the judgment, for judgment as a matter of law, and for a new trial, all of which the district court denied. Responding to the two questions certified by the federal appellate court, the South Carolina Supreme Court held traditional principles of proximate cause governed whether a personal representative has a valid claim for wrongful death from suicide, and whether 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.