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It’s one thing to defend a personal injury suit by saying the plaintiffs contributed to their own injury. It’s quite another to imply that a plaintiff may have staged an accident to cover up what a defense expert called a “suspicious” death. But Ford Motor Co. has come close to doing just that, arguing that it isn’t liable in a $1.4 million wrongful death suit filed last year by a New Jersey dentist who says his wife was killed by a defective Ford airbag. Ford alleged in court papers that Tracy Thomas’ death was “suspicious,” and that experts have determined that she was likely strangled before the accident. U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel B. Rosen in Camden, N.J., on Nov. 9 authorized Ford’s lawyers to depose Eric V. Thomas for a second time, in January 2001, since the automaker began to doubt Thomas’ story after his first deposition last summer. Meanwhile, local police are reportedly investigating the allegations, having requested case information from Ford, said one lawyer close to the case. Cape May County prosecutors did not return calls seeking comment. Thomas, who also did not return calls, has denied in the press any involvement in his wife’s death and responded to Ford’s novel discovery strategy by adding counts of defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress to his suit. THE AIRBAG DID IT In his suit, filed Feb. 1, 1999, Thomas alleged that his wife was asphyxiated by an airbag that deployed after she swerved to avoid a deer. She lost control of their 1996 Ford Explorer and hit a utility pole on a snowy winter night Feb. 9, 1997, in Cape May Courthouse, N.J. Thomas v. Ford Motor Co., No. 99-451. Though Thomas and his daughter Alix — one year old at the time — escaped without major injury, the pregnant Ms. Thomas died as a result of asphyxiation, probably as a result of the airbag, according to a medical examiner. The lawsuit, on behalf of Thomas, his daughter and his wife’s estate, also names as defendants Cleveland-based TRW Inc. and Lakeland, Fla.-based Breed Technologies for their role in designing the airbag and crash sensors that triggered its deployment. Seeking punitive damages, the suit alleges wrongful death, product liability, loss of consortium and negligence. The two sides were in settlement negotiations in May 1999 when Ford first deposed Thomas. Ford lawyers wrote in their Aug. 9 motion seeking to redepose Thomas that they became suspicious of his story after they learned of some 140 phone calls Thomas allegedly made to Stephanie Thomas (his high school girlfriend who he has since married) in Texas before the accident, as well as seven calls to her on the day of the accident and his failure to reveal to the defense the telephone lines on which he made those calls. They also allege that Thomas misled defense lawyers as to the true value of his wife’s $400,000 life insurance policy. After hiring medical experts to review Ms. Thomas’ cause of death, Ford experts determined that “Ms. Thomas died of compression of the neck by the hands of another.” Ms. Thomas’ family added to Ford’s suspicions when on Aug. 2 they told an investigator for the Cape May County prosecutor’s office that they felt Tracy was killed by Thomas, according to a copy of a general investigation report. In a Nov. 8 filing, Ford lawyer William J. Conroy of Turnersville, N.J.’s Cabaniss, Conroy & McDonald wrote that Ford believes a second deposition will reveal “an extramarital affair between Dr. Thomas and his current wife was on-going” at the time of Ms. Thomas’ death. Additionally, Ford lawyers allege in court papers that Thomas gave questionable accounts about whether his wife suffered blackouts, whether he had neck problems before the accident and whether his relationship with his current wife started before the accident. Both Conroy and Thomas’ local counsel, solo practitioner James H. Pickering Jr. of South Seaville, N.J., declined to comment.

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