Family, Ford gear up for air bag trial
Nov. 03, 1997
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) _ Six years ago, 18-year-old Rebecca Anne Tebbetts and a friend were driving home to Gilford after spending the evening stargazing on Rattlesnake Mountain.
As she entered a curvy stretch of road, the car struck an overhanging rock and she lost control. The 1989 Ford Escort careened over an embankment on the other side of the road and crashed into a 60-foot oak.
Her death set the stage for a precedent-setting, $2.7 million lawsuit against Ford Motor Co. that goes to trial Monday in Belknap County Superior Court in Laconia.
Her family says Becky Tebbetts slammed her head, chest and abdomen into the steering wheel and would have survived had the car been equipped with an air bag. The family also claims her seat belt was defective because it failed to lock, allowing her to hit the steering wheel.
``People say `It's about the money,''' Rebecca's older sister, Christine Tebbetts, said last week. ``It's not. It's about an 18-year-old kid who's not here anymore. We miss her very much, still, on a daily basis.''
Becky, as friends and family called her, was conscious as rescue workers tried to get her out of the car after the May 15, 1991 accident. She died 45 minutes later.
Ford says she died because her head snapped forward on impact and that she was thrown around so much that an air bag would not have helped. They deny the seat belt was defective.
``It's really aberrational that it's going to trial at all,'' Ford lawyer Malcolm Wheeler said. ``It's a tragedy that Rebecca Anne Tebbetts died and it is simply not Ford's fault.''
Though all vehicles must have automatic safety belts or air bags by 1998, federal safety standards did not require them in 1989. Auto makers have routinely had lawsuits against them thrown out because judges, like the original trial judge in the Tebbetts case, have ruled the federal standards pre-empt any other responsibility.
Two years ago, the New Hampshire Supreme Court became the first state supreme court in the nation to disagree. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to overrule it, and similar suits have since been filed in Arizona, Ohio and Indiana.
``We were really the first ones to get through the pre-emption mine field. Lots of people were hurt before this,'' the Tebbettses' lawyer, Ted McKean III, said. ``It will still be state-by-state.''
McKean acknowledges that Rebecca was partly at fault for the accident, because she was ``momentarily inattentive'' and speeding. But he asserts that Ford is responsible for her death.
``To say that her negligence was such that she shouldn't recover is a stretch for them. We're saying if the seat belts worked properly, she wouldn't have hit the steering wheel and would have survived, and if she had the air bag, she wouldn't have hit the steering wheel and would have survived,'' he said. ``She was far enough back that the air bag would have worked and wouldn't have hurt her.''
McKean and co-counsel Bruce Felmly say the family wants justice, not money. They say the Tebbettses decided in 1993 after researching air bags that Ford was negligent in not installing one in their daughter's car. Air bags were not an option on 1989 Ford Escorts, and Rebecca's father did not know enough about them to seek out a car with an air bag.
``They will say if she wanted an air bag, she could have bought (a different car). Hindsight is 20-20,'' McKean said. ``If the Tebbettses knew an air bag would save their daughter, I'm sure they would have bought it. They didn't give him the safest car they could.''
``The goal is to make Ford explain to a jury why they made the marketing decision they did,'' said Christine, a lawyer with McKean's firm.
Wheeler will argue that the technology was not ready in 1989 for subcompacts to have air bags because the dashboards were too rigid and they didn't have enough ``crash space'' up front to allow the bags to deploy safely.
``It would have been premature,'' he said. ``We relish the opportunity to show test results to the jury. The test results were just riddled with failures. Testing results shows that if the auto industry had put air bags in cars in the 1970s, thousands of people would have been killed. Ford's engineers and management believe they did the right thing.''
Wheeler also said the first Ford to carry air bags was the 1986 Tempo, the company's second most economical car, so the Tebbettses' claim that the company only wanted the rich to have air bags is false.
McKean says Ford had 20 years to perfect the technology and charges it dragged its feet to save money.
``You had the technology in the 1970s and you didn't put it into the cars,'' he says of Ford. ``They always want another year or two. A year or two becomes a decade or two. They had plenty of time to perfect it.''
Wheeler called that ``opinionizing by a guy who is not an engineer.'' He said recent deaths of children and small adults caused by air bags' powerful deployment show the technology still has not been perfected.
``There are huge changes that have occurred in the last 10 years, and there will be more,'' he said.
Becky Tebbetts was an honor student with a passion for literature and theater. She graduated from high school early and had already completed three semesters at the University of New Hampshire when she died.
She would have celebrated her 25th birthday five weeks ago, on Sept. 26.
Rebecca had taken the night off from baby-sitting her 2-year-old niece to go stargazing with friend Steven Page the night she died. Page survived the crash and is expected to testify.
Christine, now 32, had asked her sister to take the semester off from school and move back to Gilford to help care for Christine's daughter. The night her sister died, Christine was halfway around the world, packing up and preparing to come home from her Army post in the Persian Gulf.
Christine has become family spokeswoman. She says her parents are in too much emotional pain to deal with the lawsuit and the ensuing publicity.
``My parents are not the same parents I left,'' she says. ``It feels like we've run a marathon, emotionally. They need closure.''