Wickersham v. Ford Motor CompanyAnnotate this Case
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit certified a question of law to the South Carolina Supreme Court. 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. 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. A jury ultimately returned a verdict in favor of Mrs. Wickersham on all claims. Ford appealed, and the Fourth Circuit asked: (1) whether South Carolina recognized an "uncontrollable impulse" exception to the general rule that suicide breaks the causal chain for wrongful death claims; and (2) did comparative negligence in causing enhanced injuries apply in a crashworthiness case when the plaintiff alleges claims of strict liability and breach of warranty and is seeking damages related only to the plaintiff's enhanced injuries? The Supreme Court responded that (1) South Carolina did not recognize a general rule that suicide was an intervening act which breaks the chain of causation and categorically precludes recovery in wrongful death actions. "Rather, our courts have applied traditional principles of proximate cause to individual factual situations when considering whether a personal representative has a valid claim for wrongful death from suicide." With respect to the federal court's second question, the Supreme Court held a plaintiff's actions that do not cause an accident but are nevertheless a contributing cause to the enhancement of his injuries, are not necessarily a legally remote cause. "Mr. Wickersham's non-tortious actions that were not misuse are not relevant to Ford's liability for enhancement of his injuries in terms of the defense of comparative negligence or fault."