Products Liability Law Daily Application of comparative fault in crash worthiness cases clarified
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Friday, December 11, 2020

Application of comparative fault in crash worthiness cases clarified

By Pamela C.Maloney, J.D.

A driver’s non-tortious actions that were not misuse during an accident were irrelevant to automaker’s liability for enhanced injuries.

In a wrongful death action brought against Ford Motor Company by the widow of a driver who committed suicide after sustaining severe injuries in a one-car accident during which the vehicle’s airbag allegedly failed, the South Carolina Supreme Court held that in strict liability or breach of warranty crash worthiness cases involving the issue of comparative negligence or fault, any non-tortious actions by a driver that did not cause the accident and that were not misuse were irrelevant to the automobile maker’s liability for enhancement of the driver’s injuries. The state high court’s response clarified its earlier response to the question of whether comparative negligence in causing enhanced injuries applies in a crash worthiness case in which the plaintiff alleges claims of strict liability and breach of warranty and is seeking damages related only to the plaintiff’s enhanced injuries (Wickersham v. Ford Motor Co., December 9, 2020, Few, J.).

A driver, who had a history of mental illness, was injured in a single-car accident when his 2010 Ford Escape hit a tree after he drove through a T-intersection. He sustained significant injuries, including the eventual loss of one eye, and he suffered severe pain as a result of the accident. Seventeen months later, he committed suicide. Alleging that his injuries and suicide were caused by the vehicle’s defective airbag restraint system, which deployed the airbag too late, the driver’s wife filed suit against Ford in a South Carolina state court, asserting claims both individually and as her husband’s representative for negligence, strict liability, and breach of warranty. The case was removed to federal court, where a jury returned a verdict in the wife’s favor after finding that the airbag system in her husband’s vehicle was defectively designed and that this defect was the cause of his enhanced injuries and eventual suicide [see Products Liability Law Daily’s August 30, 2016 analysis]. The total award was $4.65 million. However, the jury also found that the driver was at fault in his use of the vehicle’s restraint system and that this fault was a proximate cause of his injuries. The jury attributed 30 percent of the fault to the driver, and 70 percent to Ford. The automaker subsequently moved for judgment as a matter of law, for a new trial, and to alter or amend the judgment. The federal district court denied the motions, concluding that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict [see Products Liability Law Daily’s August 31, 2017 analysis].

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that resolution of the case turned on questions of South Carolina law for which there was no controlling precedent. Accordingly, an appellate panel certified two questions to the state’s highest court, asking whether the state recognizes the "uncontrollable impulse" exception to the general rule that suicide breaks the causal chain in a wrongful death case, and whether comparative negligence in causing enhanced injuries applies in a crash worthiness case in which the plaintiff alleges claims of strict liability and breach of warranty and is seeking damages related only to the plaintiff’s enhanced injuries [see Products Liability Law Daily’s June 15, 2018 analysis].

In response, the state supreme court held that (1) the question of whether the widow had a valid claim for wrongful death must be determined by using traditional proximate cause principles and (2) in a crash worthiness case, the driver’s own actions contributing to the enhancement of his injuries, as opposed to those that caused the accident itself, must be compared to the tortious conduct of the automaker in determining liability. The court granted the widow’s motion for rehearing, which addressed only the second question. The court’s answer to the first question remain unchanged, i.e, South Carolina did not recognize a general rule that suicide was an intervening act that always broke the chain of causation in a wrongful death action; instead, the state courts applied traditional principles of proximate cause [see Products Liability Law Daily’s July 25, 2019 analysis].

Proximate cause and enhanced injuries. The question asked by the Fourth Circuit was whether comparative negligence, which was normally thought of as a defense, applied in a strict liability or breach of warranty case when the plaintiff’s conduct was not tortious conduct and was not misuse; and related only to the enhancement of the injuries, not to the cause of the accident. Although the state high court’s answer to this question remained unchanged, the court expressed its concern that its original reasoning might have led to confusion as to how to address causation of enhanced injuries in the crash worthiness context. The court added that the issue the district court had struggled to frame as a jury question was whether a plaintiff's actions that caused only the enhancement of his injuries-not the accident itself-could be proximate, or whether they were legally remote and, therefore, irrelevant.

In its decision in Donze v. General Motors, LLC (420 S.C. 8, 800 S.E.2d 479 (2017)), the South Carolina Supreme Court determined that comparative fault did not apply to permit the negligence of a driver in causing the initial collision to reduce the liability of a manufacturer for enhanced injuries in a crash worthiness case. The question posed in this case went a step further to ask whether comparative negligence applied in a strict liability or breach of warranty case when the driver’s conduct (1) was not tortious conduct and was not misuse; and (2) related only to the enhancement of the injuries, not to the cause of the accident. In this case, the manufacturer had alleged that the driver was out of his seating position when the airbag deployed. However, the manufacturer did not claim that the driver was negligent in being out of position or that his position at the time of the accident constituted misuse. Acknowledging that the question of whether the driver’s position could have been a proximate cause of his enhanced injuries was a valid question, the court held that in this case, the driver’s actions which did not cause the accident were legally remote and irrelevant, and that, in terms of the defense of comparative negligence or fault, any of the driver’s non-tortious actions, which did not amount to misuse, were irrelevant to the manufacturer’s liability for enhancement of his injuries as well.

The case is No. 28003.

Attorneys: Kathleen Chewning Barnes (Barnes Law Firm, LLC) and Ronnie Lanier Crosby (Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick, P.A.) for Crystal L. Wickersham. Adam H. Charnes (Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP) and Joseph Kenneth Carter Jr. (Turner Padget Graham & Laney P.A.) for Ford Motor Co.

Companies: Ford Motor Co.

MainStory: TopStory CausationNews DefensesLiabilityNews DamagesNews MotorEquipmentNews SouthCarolinaNews

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