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It was not that long ago that car manufacturers were trying to prevent the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) from requiring all passenger vehicles be equipped with automated safety technologies, such as airbags, to save lives.   That argument is over and now each manufacturer is trying to make those airbags safer and faster, to further reduce injuries during an accident.

John Wickersham was a pharmacist at a hospital.   He was driving back from working a night shift at the hospital. While attempting a left turn, the Ford Escape that he was driving went through an intersection, hit the curb, then struck a tree on the passenger side.  In the accident, Mr. Wickersham broke a rib, his upper jaw, and his left cheek bones. He also fractured his skull and ruptured his left eye.  The Ford Escort’s airbag deployed, but it was too late for Mr. Wickersham, who had permanent injuries, causing him to suffer from extreme pain on a continuous basis.

There were many surgeries performed to try to help Mr. Wickersham heal and recover, but he had to stay on many pain medications to deal with the extreme pain.  He was unable to work, which affected his finances and resulted in further emotional trauma.  Also, Mr. Wickersham had history of a mental illness. He became suicidal and, a month before he committed suicide at age 55, a psychiatrist recommended that he be hospitalized to protect him from his suicidal thoughts.  His wife sued Ford Motor Company for negligence, strick liability and breach of warranty.  She claimed that the airbag deployed too late, and was, thus, defective, as there were better airbag designs that would have deployed faster.  She also claimed that his death was the result of the accident.

In its defense, Ford Motor Co. argued that the alternative designs proposed by the plaintiff do not count as legitimate designs, as they were “purely conceptual.”  Ford also argued that Mr. Wickersham’s wife cannot sue for wrongful death, as he had commited suicide.  Finally, Ford argued that Mrs. Wickersham cannot recover puntiive damages, because there was no evidence that Ford acted recklessly, willfully or wantonly towards the victim’s rights.  In denying Ford’s motion for summary judgment, the court reviewed all of the evidnece and allowed the trial to proceed against Ford.

A jury was emppanelled and heard all the evidence presented by both sides.  The trial lasted 10 days.  This was in an area of the country that is considered to be a very conservative.  Despite his suicide, the jury decided that Ford Motor Co. was responsible for the wrongful death of Mr. Wickersham.  The jury awarded $4.65 million to Mr. Wickersham’s widow.  The jury did not find the evidence sufficient to award punitive damages against Ford.  Ford has appealed.

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