A jury on Friday awarded $4.65 million to the widow of a former Charleston area pharmacist who killed himself nearly 1½ years after an automobile accident in which a defective airbag resulted in serious injuries.
The wife of John Wickersham sued Ford Motor Co. over the defective airbag, saying pain from the injuries her husband suffered led him to take his life.
Ford had asked for the case to be dismissed, saying Wickersham had a long history of depression and suicidal thoughts and that his death was unrelated to the accident. Ford also said the airbag injuries occurred because he was not seated properly in the vehicle, with his head too close to the steering wheel at impact.
“While this incident was certainly tragic, the scientific evidence demonstrated that the accident was caused by the driver’s own inattention, as well as not being properly seated and restrained at the time of the accident,” said Ford spokesman Brad Carroll.
Ronnie Crosby, a lawyer for Crystal Wickersham, the late man’s wife, said a data download from the vehicle’s “black box” proved the airbag deployed late, allowing John Wickersham to move dangerously close to the steering wheel at the time it deployed.
“Ford’s claim of scientific evidence to the contrary was refuted at trial and obviously rejected by the jury,” Crosby said, adding that the airbag shouldn’t have deployed at all in the low-speed crash.
“We had two very different versions of what happened and the jury simply did not believe what Ford tried to sell.” Crosby said.
Following a 10-day trial in U.S. District Court in Charleston, a jury determined that while Wickersham’s mental history contributed to his suicide, Ford’s negligence was overwhelmingly to blame for his death.
Ford intends to appeal the verdict, Carroll said.
The jury’s award includes actual damages to compensate his wife and the couple’s four grown children for his wrongful death. The jury did not award punitive damages, saying there was no clear and convincing evidence that Ford acted recklessly or maliciously.
The lawsuit against Ford was filed in 2013 in Beaufort County and later moved to federal court.
According to court documents, Wickersham was returning to Charleston after working a night shift at Beaufort Memorial Hospital on Feb. 3, 2011, when he lost control of the 2010 Ford Escape he was driving. The vehicle went through an intersection, hit a curb and then struck a tree on the front passenger side. The vehicle’s airbag deployed late, causing serious and permanent facial injuries to Wickersham, who was wearing a seat belt at the time.
Wickersham, who underwent numerous surgeries, “felt like he looked like a monster and was very self-conscious about his disfigurement as a result of the accident,” court documents state.
A neuropsychologist said in a deposition that “the accident certainly caused a significant degree of pain, far more than (Wickersham) was able to cope with.”
Unable to work because of the pain, Wickersham committed suicide on July 21, 2012, by swallowing a lethal dose of pills, according to court documents. He lived in Moncks Corner and was 55.
Ford said in court documents that Wickersham had discussed suicide with his wife as early as 2003 and had spent years in treatment for severe depression. A psychiatrist Wickersham had been seeing recommended that his patient be hospitalized because of suicidal thoughts a month before the accident occurred, but Wickersham declined.
In addition to the accident, John Wickersham experienced other stressful events at the time that, combined with his mood disorder, led him to commit suicide, Ford said.
Crystal Wickersham said her husband was no longer suicidal after an April 2012 hospital stay, in which doctors took him off his pain medication after determining the medication was causing his suicidal thoughts.
“After his discharge, (Crystal Wickersham) asked (her husband) if he had suicidal thoughts and said ‘he didn’t have anything planned. He wasn’t — wasn’t on the verge of doing it,’” Wickersham’s lawyer said in court documents.
Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_