Hyundai Motor Co. v. Duncan – Court Puts Brakes on Defective Vehicle Lawsuit

A $14 million dollar product liability judgment favoring the parents of a teen severely injured when his vehicle side air bag failed to inflate in a crash was reversed recently by the Virginia Supreme Court, which found plaintiff’s expert witness testimony lacking.
Specifically, the court found the expert witness had failed to conduct adequate testing proving his theory that if the airbag sensor had been moved to a different location in this model of vehicle, it would have prevented the teen’s injuries. The expert had opined the location of the side airbag sensor had rendered the vehicle unreasonably dangerous.

The case, Hyundai Motor Co. v. Duncan, stemmed from a single-vehicle crash in which the teen lost control of the car, careened off the road, struck two snow banks, a bale of hay and finally, a tree. His side air bag did not deploy, and the teen suffered serious and debilitating head injuries.

The family initially brought claims against the car manufacturer for negligence, failure to warn, breach of implied warranty of merchantability, breach of implied warranty of fitness and breach express warranties. Ultimately, however, the only claim the family pursued at trial was that of breach of implied warranty of merchantability because the vehicle was defective, unreasonably dangerous and unfit for the ordinary purpose for which it was intended.

An implied warranty of merchantability means the product must confirm reasonably to an average buyer’s expectations and/or what the company advertises. Here, the family alleges the manufacturer asserted the vehicle was safe when in fact it was not.

To bolster their claim, plaintiffs offered the testimony of a mechanical engineer with expertise in airbag design who determined the vehicle was defectively designed. The sensor to trigger the airbag in this vehicle was located on the cross-member under the driver’s seat. If instead it had been located 4 to 6 inches from the floor on the driver’s side door, it would have deployed, he testified.

Defense sought to eliminate the engineer’s testimony prior to trial on grounds he failed to conduct sufficient analysis to reach his conclusion. He reportedly relied on a study of computer-aided engineering that focused on the manufacturer’s 1999 model vehicle. That study had in fact been conducted by defendant, and in it, company scientists weighed more than a dozen different locations for the side air bag before deciding to put it under the driver’s seat.

However, the engineer did none of his own testing to determine whether the airbag would have deployed in this case had the sensor been placed in a different spot. He did not dispute that, when deployed, the side air bag did offer good protection. But as he put, “It’s got to work.” The vehicle did comply with all minimum safety standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The trial court overruled the defense motion.

After plaintiff’s success at trial, manufacturer appealed, arguing the expert witness testimony was based on an insufficient foundation. The Virginia Supreme Court agreed, finding although the witness was qualified to testify, his opinions lacked evidentiary support with a sufficient factual basis that takes into account all relevant variables. In a split opinion, the state high court found in this case, the opinion did not meet those standards.

Our experienced Greensboro injury lawyers are well-versed in what the courts expect in terms of proof burden in cases like this. Our legal team has access to a wide range of skilled and knowledgeable expert witnesses, and we understand what is necessary to prevail in court.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Hyundai Motor Co. v. Duncan, Jan. 8, 2015, Virginia Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
Giles v. Eagle Farms Inc. – Drinking and Driving and Workers’ Compensation, Dec. 25, 2014, Greensboro Accident Lawyer Blog

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