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Doctor, trooper say air bags would have saved woman

November 6, 1997

LACONIA, N.H. (AP) _ The medical examiner who declared Rebecca Anne Tebbetts dead after a 1991 car crash said her life could have been saved by an air bag _ equipment her 2-year-old car didn’t have.

However, Dr. John Bentwood conceded that he had no way of knowing that for sure.

Tebbetts’ family is suing the Ford Motor Co. for $2.7 million, saying her 1988 Escort was defectively designed because it lacked a driver-side air bag _ which it wasn’t required to have at the time.

Ford said the technology didn’t exist then to put air bags in compact cars, and the 18-year-old woman was driving too fast anyway for an air bag to have saved her.

Tebbetts’ car ran off a winding road in Holderness and hit a rock ledge on May 15, 1991. It skidded back across the road over an embankment and hit a tree.

``She was probably restrained by the seat belt, but not enough to keep her from striking the steering wheel,″ Bentwood, Grafton County’s medical examiner, testified Wednesday. ``I think her chances would have been greatly improved and I think that it probably is more likely than not that she would have survived.″

No autopsy was performed, but Bentwood testified that bruises on Tebbetts’ head, chest and abdomen led him to believe she slammed into the steering wheel and died of internal injuries.

He conceded under cross-examination, however, that despite his belief that an air bag would have helped, there was no way of knowing.

The state police sergeant who investigated the crash expressed the same opinion.

Sgt. Kevin Hamilton testified that he has seen some accidents in which air bags saved lives and he has survived one himself. He said he believes an air bag would have saved Tebbetts.

Hamilton also said his first report overestimated how fast Tebbetts was driving. He said he changed the estimated speed from between 35 mph and 50 mph to between 30 mph and 40 mph after seeing computer models of the crash done by experts hired by the family’s lawyers.

Ford lawyers suggested that the models are flawed because the data used to make them was inaccurate.

Federal safety standards in 1991 did not require air bags in the model Tebbetts was driving. Lawsuits against automakers have been routinely thrown out because judges, like the original trial judge in the Tebbetts case, have ruled the federal standards pre-empt any other responsibility.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court revived the lawsuit, saying federal safety laws are ``supplementary and in addition to the common law of negligence and product liability.″

The U.S. Supreme Court let that ruling stand without comment, and lawsuits have since been filed in Arizona, Ohio and Indiana.

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