RICHMOND, Va. - The Virginia Supreme Court overturned a $14 million jury verdict against Hyundai Motor Company, ruling an expert shouldn't have been allowed to testify the placement of a critical airbag sensor made the company's Tiburon unreasonably dangerous.
Keith Allen and Vanessa Duncan sued the makers of their son's 2008 Hyundai Tiburon, claiming the teenager's brain injuries during an accident were caused by the side airbag's failure to deploy.
In their lawsuit, the Duncans claimed the automaker's decision to place the side airbag sensor beneath the driver's seat, instead of on the B-pillar of the vehicle, prevented the safety device from functioning.
Zachary Duncan collided with a tree after he lost control of his two-door Tiburon and struck two snow banks and a large bale of hay. Despite smashing into the tree driver's side first, the Tiburon's side airbag did not deploy, Duncan says.
A 2012 jury was unable to reach a verdict when the case was first tried. At the 2013 trial, a new jury awarded the Duncans $14,140,000.
The family supported their breach of implied warranty claim with the expert testimony of Geoffrey Mahon, a mechanical engineer who testified that the 2008 Hyundai Tiburon was defectively designed based on the location of the side airbag.
"Mahon's opinion that the 2008 Tiburon was unreasonably dangerous was premised upon his assumption that the side airbag would have deployed if the sensor had been located on the vehicle's B-pillar," Justice Elizabeth A. McClanahan wrote for the majority.
"Yet, as Mahon readily conceded, he did not perform any analysis or calculations to support this assumption," Thursday's opinion said.
Mahon testified at trial that he relied on Hyundai's results from a 1999 location study, and his calculations, to determine that the airbag would have deployed if the sensor was in the specific location of the B-pillar that Hyundai tested in the 1999 location study.
Hyundai argued on appeal that there was insufficient foundation for Mahon's opinion rendering the 2008 Tiburon unreasonably dangerous based on the location of the sensor for the side airbag.
In overturning the verdict, the Virginia Supreme Court said Mahon's opinion was inadmissible, and that the Pulaski County Circuit Court abused its discretion in admitting it.
"In short, Mahon's opinion that the 2008 Tiburon was unreasonably dangerous was without sufficient evidentiary support because it was premised upon his assumption that the aside airbag would have deployed if the sensor was at his proposed location - an assumption that clearly lacked a sufficient factual basis and disregarded the variables he acknowledged as bearing upon the sensor location determination," wrote Justice Colin R. Gibb on behalf of the court majority.
Although dissenting from the majority's opinion, Justice Cleo E. Powell wrote that the trial court did not give the jury proper instructions and, therefore, the $14 million verdict should be reversed on that error.
"In my opinion, the majority reaches this conclusion by improperly focusing on Mahon's preferred location for the side airbag sensor, even though it is clear that he did not base his conclusion on this preferred location," Powell wrote. "In so doing, the majority fails to view Mahon's testimony in the light most favorable to the Duncans, the prevailing party below."
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