The South Carolina Court of Appeals has upheld a directed verdict dismissing a lawsuit brought by a man who alleged that he lost his right eye after an airbag deployed when it shouldn’t have as a result of a defectively designed airbag system.

The unanimous Aug. 21 opinion affirms a 2016 ruling by a circuit court judge in Charleston County.

Steven and Claudia Newbern sued Ford Motor Co. after they were involved in a car accident in 2012 while driving a 2009 Ford Focus. They argued that Ford should be held responsible for Steven’s injuries under strict liability and negligence theories.

But Chief Judge James Lockemy, writing for the court, said that the plaintiffs had failed to offer evidence that would support a finding of liability under either theory. Both theories require a plaintiff to prove that a product, as designed, was in an unreasonably dangerous or defective condition, and that there was a feasible alternative design that would have made the product safer.

The Newberns did not call their own automotive design expert at trial, and instead called a Ford employee to testify as an adverse witness. The employee testified that modern vehicles come equipped with sensors, calibrated by the carmakers, which tell the airbag system whether or not to deploy after an impact. He conceded that, based on Ford’s own crash tests, the airbags should not have deployed in a crash like the one the Newberns experienced.

But the witness also testified that a single crash test can’t be considered in isolation because the calibration in one crash mode can affect the airbag’s performance in another. The witness ultimately described the calibration accepted by Ford as “good” when looked at as a whole. As a result, the court found that even though the airbags in the Newberns’ car should not have deployed, and Ford could have changed the calibrations such that the airbags would not have deployed, the couple had still failed to provide evidence of an alternative design that would have been safer.

“His testimony indicates that because the crash modes are interconnected—redesigning the sensing could result in an airbag not deploying when Ford determined it should deploy,” Lockemy wrote. “Therefore, modifications to the airbag system could result in a more dangerous product rather than a less dangerous product.”

It’s the second time this year that South Carolina’s courts have had to weigh in on a dispute involving airbags in Ford’s cars. In July the state’s Supreme Court answered a certified question from the 4th Circuit by declining to toss out a lawsuit brought by the estate of a man who killed himself after suffering severe injuries in a car crash where the airbags allegedly deployed too late.

William Applegate of Yarborough Applegate in Charleston, Kathleen Chewning Barnes of Hampton, and Stephen E. Van Gaasbeck, of Law Offices of Helotes, Texas represented the Newberns. Ken Carter and Sam Sammataro of Turner Padget in Columbia represented Ford. Neither side’s attorneys could be reached for comment on the ruling.

The seven-page decision is Newbern v. Ford Motor Co. (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-081-19). Follow David Donovan on Twitter @SCLWDonovan



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