Car manufacturer Hyundai is in a major personal injury lawsuit in county court in Montana. The case may be in a local court but it is garnishing national attention, as the 2011 crash of a Hyundai Tiburon on a highway in Montana killed three people.
According to the family of the driver and passenger, cousins Trevor and Tanner Olson, the car’s right front steering knuckle failed, causing the car to veer into oncoming traffic and crash into an oncoming car. A steering knuckle is the part that connects the wheel hub to the suspension. If the knuckle fails then the wheel to which it is attached will potentially not respond to signals from the steering wheel.
Defendant’s “Judicial Fireworks”
The local newspaper called Hyundai’s argument that came out in the middle of trial “Judicial Fireworks.” Hyundai put an expert witness on the stand who analyzed photographic footage immediately before the crash. The witness testified that “there is evidence a firecracker went off in the vehicle.” This directly contradicted expert testimony by witnesses from the plaintiffs.
The reason this was a “Judicial Firework” was not just that it was testimony that contradicted that of the plaintiff, which is not unusual. What was striking was that it came as a complete surprise to the court. Hyundai had copies of the photographic evidence since 2011, and its experts only noticed the evidence until midway through the trial.
Plaintiff’s counsel, John Bohyer, said smoke was shooting out of his ears when Hyundai presented this evidence. He found it completely uncalled for that the defendant waited 34 months after the crash and a full week into the trial before noticing evidence that changed the entire complexion of the case.
The Hyundai witness’s comments made such a big splash that the trial judge ordered the jury to initially leave the room before the forensic expert testified to avoid telling the jury any evidence that might be overly prejudicial.
The jury ruled on May 14, 2014 that Hyundai was liable for the crash and awarded the plaintiffs $248 million. The jurors were not persuaded by the evidence presented by Hyundai. In fact, they found that the company acted with “actual malice” by not issuing a recall for defects on its steering knuckles from its cars, such as the Tiburon driven by the accident victims. Two hundred and forty million dollars of the damages were punitive damages as a result of Hyundai’s failure to act on the allegedly defective part of the steering mechanism.
The cost to Hyundai for inspecting and repairing all of the steering knuckles on the five million cars it made from 2000 to 2011 would have cost $2 billion, had it chosen to take that course of action. The plaintiffs’ attorney claimed that Hyundai ignored the problem that existed in at least 127 vehicles, and possibly many more. Alternatively, Hyundai said that a problem in 127 cars did not show that there was a major problem in all of its cars or that the steering knuckle was the cause of the crash in the case at hand.