A federal judge in New Jersey has allowed the estate of a pregnant driver to pursue some of its claims against Ford Motor Co. and supplier TRW Inc. stemming from the allegedly premature deployment of airbags in her 1996 Explorer.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Orlofsky ruled that the state's product liability statute does not preclude an independent claim against Ford for negligent installation of the airbags. As a result, the estate of Tracy Thomas may be able to recover damages on that theory even if the airbags weren't defective, he said.
A lawyer for the estate, Elliot Kolodny of Doylestown, Pa., said, 'It's the first time a federal court in the state has recognized a claim for negligent installation of a component as an independent cause of action.'
The defendants did not ask Orlofsky to dismiss claims under the product liability statute, and he did not address the validity or legal basis for those allegations.
TRW and Ford deny any defects.
'There was nothing wrong with the airbag,' said Ann Marie Walsh, TRW's national counsel in Chicago.
Ford spokesman Jim Cain said, 'We're confident we can prove to a jury that this airbag system isn't defective, and we aren't responsible for her death.'
Thomas, six months pregnant and wearing a seat belt, was driving the Explorer at a low speed in February 1997 when she saw a deer in the road; she struck a utility pole while trying to avoid the animal, the suit alleges. Both driver and passenger airbags deployed.
Thomas and the fetus died, and her husband and daughter, who were passengers, were injured.
The suit against Ford, TRW and a second airbag supplier, Breed Technologies Inc., contends the airbags shouldn't have deployed because the crash occurred at a relatively low speed. All claims against Breed were dismissed earlier after the company filed for bankruptcy protection, Kolodny and Walsh said.
In his decision, Orlofsky said New Jersey law allows claims for negligent installation of nondefective products without conflicting with the Product Liability Act.
'It may yet be proved that Ford improperly installed otherwise well-functioning and nondefective airbag components,' he said.
The negligent-installation claim does not apply to TRW, Walsh said.
Orlofsky also authorized the estate to pursue its allegations of breach of express warranty but not breach of implied warranty.
However, Walsh said there can be no valid warranty claim against TRW 'because we don't provide warranties to consumers.'
'We don't publish an owner's manual,' he said. 'We don't provide warnings for the module.'
Ford's Cain said the decision 'didn't do much that will affect the issues of liability. ... We're prepared to try this case.'
The suit, he said, could go to trial next fall.