C A M D E N, N.J., Oct. 26, 2000 -- It began as a product liability lawsuit by a dentist who claims his pregnant wife was killed by a deploying air bag. But the case has since taken a new twist, bolstered by allegations of adultery, conflicting medical reports and suspicious telephone records.
Now, the prosecutor’s office has reopened the investigation into her death.
Dr. Eric Thomas, of Cape May County, maintains his first wife, Tracy, was killed by a deploying air bag when she drove their Ford Explorer into a pole on a snowy night in 1997. He has sued Ford Motor Co., alleging wrongful death.
But the automaker, citing forensic experts the company hired for the case, contends Tracy Thomas, 37, was strangled.
Ford: Evidence of Affair
Ford alleges the 35-year-old New Jersey dentist was having an affair at the time of his wife’s death. Company lawyers William J. Conroy and Glenn A. Zeitz say telephone records show Thomas received more than 140 calls from his high-school sweetheart in Austin, Texas, in the three months before his wife died Feb. 9, 1997. At least seven of the calls came the day of the accident, the lawyers say.
Eric Thomas married Stephanie Arrington, 34, a year and a half later.
Urged by Tracy Thomas’ family, prosecutors reopened the investigation last week, when the phone records came to light. Acting Prosecutor David Blaker said he wants to review the records.
According to court records, Eric Thomas’ actions after his wife’s death caused her parents to become suspicious. He had asked them not to talk about Tracy and to take down any photographs of her when the couple’s daughter, Alix, went to visit them at their home on Cape Cod, Mass.
Ford’s lawyers have asked U.S. Magistrate Joel B. Rosen to let them re-interview Thomas. But his lawyers on Wednesday asked the judge for more time, saying they needed to review records.
“It’s a large case, there are a lot of documents,” said John Eastlack, one of Thomas’ lawyers.
The judge scheduled a hearing for Nov. 9.
Lawyers on both sides declined to comment after Wednesday’s court session, saying the judge had barred them from speaking about the case.
Rosen on Oct. 11 ordered that depositions by Eric and Stephanie Thomas be postponed because the case could become a criminal matter.
Eric Thomas also is suing the automaker for defamation for implying that he killed his wife. Thomas insists he had nothing to do with her death.
“I can honestly tell you that I did not kill my wife,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer in a story published last month. “I can tell you the air bag did.”
Thomas said he sued the automaker to highlight the dangers of air bags.
“I know that Tracy would do the same thing for me,” he said.
According to Thomas’ lawsuit, the couple were wearing seat belts, and Alix, then 18 months old, was strapped in the back seat. Tracy Thomas, who was six months pregnant, hit a pole when she veered off the snow-covered road to avoid a deer.
When a passing motorist stopped nearly an hour later, she had no pulse. Both mother and unborn child were pronounced dead at the scene. Eric Thomas was unconscious; their daughter was not seriously injured.
Two months later, Dr. Elliot Gross, Cape May County’s medical examiner, said Tracy Thomas’ death was caused by blunt force trauma consistent with a motor vehicle accident.
But forensic pathologist Dr. Michael M. Baden, one of several experts retained by Ford, said hemorrhages in her eyes and neck were inconsistent with air bag injuries, but consistent with the manual compression of the neck.
Dr. James V. Benedict said an exploding air bag would generate force to the victim’s body for “less than the blink of an eye” while the pressure needed to cause the injuries found on Tracy Thomas’ body lasted at least 30 seconds.
“This case began as any other product liability lawsuit, and we hired experts to identify the cause of the accident and injuries,” Ford said in a statement. “Our suspicions arose when the evidence clearly established that the air bag played absolutely no role in Tracy Thomas’ unfortunate death. ... Mrs. Thomas died of compression of the neck by the hands of another.”