An interesting case on liability and causation was recently decided by the Supreme Court of South Carolina.
On 3 February 2011 pharmacist John Wickersham was involved in a road accident while driving a Ford Escape. The airbag system was defective and enhanced his injuries. After enduring severe pain for some months, he committed suicide. His widow sought compensation from the manufacturer of the car based on his wrongful death. Ford argued that the deceased’s suicide was an intervening act that could not have been caused by a defective airbag.
After a number of procedural twists and turns (including removing the case to federal court) a jury awarded the widow $4.65 million, albeit with a discount for Mr Wickersham’s contributory negligence. Ford appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals then asked the South Carolina Supreme Court to determine whether that State’s law recognised an exception to the principle that suicide will break the chain of causation in wrongful death claims.
The Supreme Court responded that it did not recognise such a principle. Instead, the ‘traditional’ principles of causation applied: that is, the court must first decide whether the suicide was foreseeable as a matter of law. That is, was it the “natural and probable” consequence of the defendant’s act or omission? If so, then the jury must determine whether in the facts of the case the suicide was foreseeable and whether the alleged act was causative: that is, did it cause the deceased to suffer an involuntary and irresistible urge to end his life.