Wickersham v. Ford Motor Co., s. 9:13-cv-1192-DCN

Decision Date09 July 2016
Docket NumberNos. 9:13-cv-1192-DCN,9:14-cv-0459-DCN,s. 9:13-cv-1192-DCN
Citation194 F.Supp.3d 434
Parties Crystal L WICKERSHAM, Plaintiff, v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY, Defendant. Crystal L Wickersham, as Personal Representative of the Estate of John Harley Wickersham, Jr., Plaintiff, v. Ford Motor Company, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of South Carolina

Donnie Charles Gibson, Don C. Gibson Law Firm, N. Charleston, SC, Mark David Ball, Ronnie L. Crosby, Peters Murdaugh Parker Eltzroth and Detrick, Hampton, SC, for Plaintiff.

Andrew William Kunz, Elliott and Phelan, Georgetown, SC, Carmelo B. Sammataro, Joseph Kenneth Carter, Jr., Nicholas W. Gladd, Turner Padget Graham and Laney, Columbia, SC, David Christopher Marshall, Lanier and Burroughs LLC, Orangeburg, SC, for Defendant.

ORDER

DAVID C. NORTON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

The following matter is before the court on defendant Ford Motor Company's ("Ford") motion for summary judgment. For the following reasons, the court grants in part and denies in part Ford's motion.

I. BACKGROUND1

On February 3, 2011, decedent John Harley Wickersham, Jr. ("Wickersham") was involved in a single car accident while driving a 2010 Ford Escape. Wickersham suffered numerous permanent injuries from the crash, which produced continuous, extreme pain. Wickersham committed suicide on July 21, 2012. Plaintiff alleges that Wickersham's suicide was caused by the pain he suffered as a result of the accident.

Wickersham had a history of mental illness. In 2003, long before the accident, Wickersham was diagnosed with bipolar disorder by his family practitioner, Dr. Richard Bolt, who referred him to a psychiatrist, Dr. Perry Trouche. Wickersham made no suicide attempts at or near the time of this diagnosis, but did tell his wife, plaintiff Crystal L. Wickersham ("plaintiff"), and Dr. Trouche that he had suicidal thoughts. Pl.'s Response Ex. 1, Pl. Depo. 140:23–25; Pl.'s Response Ex. 2, Trouche Depo. 21:11–13. These suicidal thoughts eventually subsided and Wickersham agreed to report any future suicidal ideation. Trouche Depo. 22:25, 27:6–12. Wickersham saw Dr. Trouche from October 2003 until June 2005. Id. at 21:7–10, 33:4–18. Years later, in January of 2011, Wickersham again sought treatment from Dr. Trouche for worsening depression and suicidal ideation. Trouche Depo. 38:2–13. Dr. Trouche recommended hospitalization, which Wickersham declined. Id. at 39:7–23. Dr. Trouche prescribed a new depression medication, and Wicksersham felt better after six days. Id. at 70:7–71:21.

Wickersham worked as a pharmacist and consultant. His career began in the pharmacy department at Roper Hospital in 1982. Pl. Depo. 22:20–25. Around 2003, Wickersham left his full-time position at Roper Hospital to work for InfuScience. Id. at 24:19–25:19. In 2008, Wickersham left InfuScience and took a full-time position at Beaufort Memorial Hospital on a two-year contract. Id. at 26:8–23, 27:16–28:1. During that time, Wickersham would work in Beaufort for seven days and then return to Charleston for seven days. Id. at 38:15–20. While in Charleston, Wickersham continued to perform consulting work for Roper Hospital. Id. at 42. When his contract with Beaufort Memorial ended, Wickersham worked on an "as needed" basis at Beaufort Memorial in addition to his consulting work for Roper Hospital. Id. at 28:2–25. Wickersham briefly took a position at the Medical University of South Carolina, but left after a week due to disagreements with some of the Medical University's policies. Id. at 29:2–5, 30:6–7. After that, Wickersham looked for full-time work in the Charleston area, but could not find any. Id. at 30:20–23. Wickersham then continued to work on a contract and consulting basis for Roper Hospital, Beaufort Memorial, and other medical practices until the time of the accident. Id. at 31–32.

The accident occurred on the night of February 3, 2011. While attempting to make a left turn, Wickersham's car went through an intersection and hit a tree on the front passenger side. Wickersham was taken to the Medical University of South Carolina for treatment. Wickersham suffered a variety of injuries in the accident, including a broken rib, a broken upper jaw, broken cheek bones around his left eye, a fractured skull, and a ruptured left eye. Pl.'s Depo. 211–14. Wickersham required numerous surgeries and treatments during his initial hospitalization and in the months that followed. Id. at 230:7–12, 233:20–234:20. Most significantly, Wickersham experienced extreme pain as a result of his injuries, which drove him to seek relief from pain specialists, pain medication, and a nerve block. Id. at 236–238. Unfortunately, these treatments were largely ineffective. Id. at 237:18–19, 239:23–240:1. The pain not only affected Wickersham's body, but also his ability to work, and consequently, his family's finances. Id. at 240: 9–24. Wickersham eventually lost his left eye in November 2011, which resulted in further emotional trauma. Id. at 230:13–231:7, 244:16–25.

In April 2012, Wickersham was admitted to Roper Hospital for suicidal thoughts. Id. at 246:12–20. At the time, Wickersham told plaintiff that "[she] need[ed] to put [him] somewhere or [he was] going to hurt [himself]."

Id. at 247:16–18. The Roper Hospital staff felt that Wickersham's pain medications were causing his suicidal thoughts, so they took him off of the pain medications, which relieved Wickersham of his suicidal thoughts, and he was released from the hospital. Id. at 248:6–10, 15–17. The pain, however, did not subside, and Wickersham suffered withdrawals from his pain medications. Id. at 248:10, 19–24.

After Wickersham was released from the hospital, plaintiff regularly asked him whether he had any suicidal thoughts. Id. at 250:24–251:11. Wickersham told plaintiff that he occasionally had such thoughts, but he was not on the verge of committing suicide. Id. On July 21, 2012, however, Wickersham committed suicide by overdosing on prescription pain medication.

Plaintiff filed two actions, one individually and one as personal representative of Wickersham's estate, bringing claims for negligence, strict liability, and breach of warranty. Plaintiff contends that Wickersham's injuries and eventual suicide were caused by a defective airbag restraint system in the 2010 Ford Escape, which deployed the airbag too late. Pl.'s Response 23–24. On November 24, 2015, Ford filed the instant motion for summary judgment. On December 29, 2015, plaintiff filed a response, and on January 8, 2016, Ford filed a reply. The court held a hearing on the matter on May 12, 2016, and the matter is now ripe for the court's review.

II. STANDARD

Summary judgment shall be granted "if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). "By its very terms, this standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247–48, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). "Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Id. at 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505. "[S]ummary judgment will not lie if the dispute about a material fact is ‘genuine,’ that is, if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id.

"[A]t the summary judgment stage the judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 249, 106 S.Ct. 2505. When the party moving for summary judgment does not bear the ultimate burden of persuasion at trial, it may discharge its burden by demonstrating to the court that there is an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). The non-movant must then "make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Id. at 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548. The court should view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all inferences in its favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505.

III. DISCUSSION

Ford seeks summary judgment on three grounds, arguing that: (i) plaintiff cannot recover under any theory of liability because plaintiff cannot show the existence of a feasible alternative design; (ii) suicide necessarily constitutes an independent act which breaks the causal chain between the defendant's actions and the decedent's death, thereby precluding any wrongful death action; and (iii) plaintiff cannot recover punitive damages because there is no evidence that Ford acted recklessly, willfully, or wantonly, and any award of punitive damages would violate Ford's due process rights.2 The court addresses each argument in turn.

A. Feasible Alternative Design

Ford first argues that plaintiff has failed to present evidence of a feasible alternative design. Under South Carolina law, "the exclusive test in a products liability design case is the risk-utility test with its requirement of showing a feasible alternative design." Branham v. Ford Motor Co., 390 S.C. 203, 701 S.E.2d 5, 14 (2010). To satisfy the alternative design requirement, a plaintiff must "show how his alternative design would have prevented the product from being unreasonably dangerous." Id. at 16. "This presentation of an alternative design must include consideration of the costs, safety and functionality associated with the alternative design." Id.

Plaintiff contends that Wickersham's injuries were caused by the...

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