Civil Litigator, Consumer Champion Heiskell Dies

Former West Virginia Secretary of State and well-known plaintiffs’ attorney Edgar “Hike” Heiskell III died yesterday after a brief battle with cancer. He was 76 years old.

A true Renaissance man, Heiskell succeeded in politics and the law. His interests ranged from cooking to writing to an enduring love for pre-GM Swedish Saabs. A graduate of the University of West Virginia and the University of Virginia School of Law, Heiskell also served as a fighter pilot for the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard.  From 1973-1975, he served as Secretary of State, and as the Republican State Chair from 1987 to 1990.

In legal circles, Heiskell was known as a skilled attorney willing to take on difficult defect cases, win significant settlements and verdicts, and push the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to take action. Ryan Heiskell, also an attorney, said of his father: "He was a hero and champion for injured victims of dangerous auto defects. He literally devoted his career to helping and never backed down from a fight."

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Heiskell tackled the stability defects in the Ford Bronco II. The compact, two-door Sport Utility Vehicle had one of the worst rollover records among the iterations of the SUV – the Insurance Institute on Highway Safety found that its rollover rate was several times its peers, one in 500 Broncos produced involved in a fatal rollover crash, and Geico stopped writing insurance policies for the vehicle.

NHTSA investigated the defect in 1989, but closed the investigation after an analysis of crash data showed that its rollover rate was comparable to other SUVs. Heiskell’s litigation work uncovered pre-production tests never disclosed to the agency, showing that the Bronco II could rollover at speeds as low as 25 mph in foreseeable accident-avoidance or lane change maneuvers. This discovery led Heiskell in 1996 to petition NHTSA to re-open the investigation and sanction Ford for failing to submit these documents in response to NHTSA’s requests for information.

The agency declined to do either. However, NHTSA issued a rare letter of admonishment to Ford. The agency expressed surprise that Ford Automotive Safety Office officials Robert B. Munson and Wayne Kippola admitted in depositions that the company only submitted materials relevant to production vehicles, despite the plain meaning of the agency’s request to supply all relevant documents. In a May 1998 letter to Ford, the agency wrote:

"We have recently requested that Ford construe ODI’ information requests according to their “plain-meaning,” and that, when a request calls for the submission of “all documents” without qualification, Ford supply all relevant documents, likewise without  qualification. If this includes information related to pre-production vehicles that, in Ford's view, differed significantly from the eventual production version of the vehicle, Ford may seek to limit the scope of the request by explaining the differences between the pre-production and the production vehicles and setting forth reasons why the information related to pre-production vehicles would not be relevant to ODI’s investigation and thus should not be required to be submitted."

"His work on unintended acceleration was also legendary,” says SRS president Sean Kane, who worked with Heiskell on many safety issues. “Those types of issues are notoriously difficult and often don’t end in good results for clients. But, Hike broke through the driver error blame game that companies foisted on victims and identified key vehicle defects. He was able to get verdicts in unintended acceleration cases -- a rare feat -- and he developed a lot of important markers in the playbook on how to deal with these complex cases. At the root of it, he was a caring person who used his skills to help people who often had nowhere else to turn.” 

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