Products Liability Law Daily $2M verdict against Hyundai for negligent design of ABS system reversed due to unreliability of claimants’ experts
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Monday, September 20, 2021

$2M verdict against Hyundai for negligent design of ABS system reversed due to unreliability of claimants’ experts

By Nicholas Kaster, J.D.

The trial court also erred by refusing to permit Hyundai the opportunity to impeach the passenger regarding her claims that the driver negligently failed to maintain his vehicle.

The Supreme Court of Mississippi has reversed a $2,193,000 jury verdict against Hyundai Motor America in a suit alleging that the defective design of the anti-lock braking system (ABS) in its Santa Fe model was responsible for an accident with injuries. In attempting to prove their claim of defective design, the injured claimants offered two experts, neither of whom were qualified to offer opinions as to whether the Hyundai ABS was defectively designed, the court found. The trial court’s failure to exclude the testimony was reversible error, the state high court concluded (Hyundai Motor America v. Hutton, September 16, 2021, Randolph, M.).

Background. The case arose from a single-car accident involving a 2005 Santa Fe Hyundai. It was reported that the car drifted into the median and that the driver lost control. Both the driver and the passenger were injured.

The passenger sued Hyundai and the driver, and the driver filed a cross-claim against Hyundai. The passenger settled her injury claims against the driver prior to trial. Both claimants proceeded against Hyundai, alleging that the car was defectively designed due to an exposed, unprotected component of the ABS. They asserted that an unseen and never-discovered object of unknown elements and composition struck a component part, dislodging an ABS tone ring temporarily, which caused the vehicle’s computer to send erratic braking signals. The size, shape, and component elements of the phantom object were unknown. The claimants further asserted that the alleged erratic signals, in turn, caused the ABS computer to assume that the front right wheel was not turning, which caused braking to occur on the front left side. The alleged one-sided braking caused the driver to lose control before the vehicle overturned multiple times.

Over Hyundai’s objections, the claimants designated two persons as experts who were called to testify regarding their theories of the accident. An auto-mechanic was designated as an expert to testify about the defective design of the ABS. An engineer/metallurgist was designated as an expert to testify that an object on the highway surface contacted the right front wheel speed sensor ring of the ABS and that the design of the ABS was defective. Hyundai moved to exclude the testimony of both witnesses as unqualified and unreliable, but the trial court denied the motion. After a two-week trial, the jury returned a verdict for the claimants, awarding $193,000 to the passenger and $2 million to the driver.

Hyundai appealed, contending that the trial court erred by: (1) prohibiting Hyundai from cross-examining the passenger regarding the original lawsuit against the driver; and (2) allowing the auto mechanic and engineer to testify as experts.

Cross-examination of passenger. Hyundai argued that the trial court erred by refusing to permit it to cross-examine the passenger regarding her claims that the driver negligently failed to maintain his vehicle in the roadway. Hyundai sought to impeach the passenger as to her testimony that Hyundai exclusively caused the accident. Hyundai alleged that it was error to prevent it from cross-examining the passenger regarding the inconsistency between her initial allegations and her position at trial after settling with the driver. The trial court cited Mississippi Rule of Evidence 408, which prohibits evidence of a settlement from being used to prove or disprove the settling party’s liability, and found that the rule should be extended to prohibit evidence of the fact that a settling party had been sued. However, the advisory committee note to Rule 408 dictates that “Rule 408 only excludes offers when the purpose is proving the validity or invalidity of the claim or amount. Therefore, an offer for another purpose may well be admissible at trial.” The Mississippi high court therefore found that the trial court erred by refusing to permit Hyundai the opportunity to impeach the passenger as to her testimony that Hyundai exclusively caused the accident. This refusal resulted in Hyundai’s not having a fair trial, which constituted reversible error, the high court determined.

Testimony of claimants’ experts. Hyundai next argued that the claimants failed to prove the elements of their design defect claim because they relied on inadmissible expert testimony under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, nc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993), and Mississippi Rule of Evidence 702. The state high court agreed.

The court found that the auto mechanic testified outside the scope of his expertise. “He lacked the qualifications required by Rule 702 to qualify to testify that the ABS was defectively designed,” the court determined. His education of completing high school and attending a vocational school demonstrated a lack of scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge to testify, to give an opinion, or to apply facts relying on scientific principles and methods, the court said. While he may well be an excellent mechanic and received extensive training in auto repair, he lacked education, experience, or training in the field of automotive design, the court determined. He never offered any design credentials and never designed a braking system for a production car such as the Hyundai Santa Fe.

Moreover, the court stated, the mechanic’s testimony was wholly speculative and contradicted facts in the record. A photograph taken by police immediately after the crash showed the tone ring in place, with no dislodgement or marks on the control arm. The mechanic’s photograph that he alleged revealed a dislodged tone ring was taken six years after the crash and after the car had been moved to the junkyard.

The court thus found that the mechanic’s testimony was outside his field of expertise and was not supported by the record evidence. The trial court erred by allowing him to testify as an expert in ABS designs. His testimony should have been excluded, the court determined.

The engineer also testified that the 2005 Hyundai Santa Fe was defective in design due to its lack of ABS protection. He had a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master of science degree and a PhD in metallurgy. He testified that mechanical engineers are trained to design and evaluate designs. He also testified that he had experience working for automotive manufacturers, including Ford and Honda. But he also testified that he had never designed an ABS and had never done design work for a single auto manufacturer. He had never been qualified to testify in a case involving an ABS tone ring. He offered only that he acquired knowledge by “study and examination” of braking systems, but he offered no peer-reviewed material or publications addressing the causation of a similar accident as he opined in this case.

The court noted that the engineer conducted no testing whatsoever to support his theory that the ABS was defectively designed. He merely attended the testing done by the mechanic. He had acquired no knowledge of a similar accident ever occurring, either through experience, training, or education. His proffered opinion was not supported by any treatise, peer-reviewed publication, or any other scientific article, the court said, nor was it based on any reliable scientific principles or methods. As his opinion lacked reliability when examined through the lens of Rule 702, it should have been excluded, the court determined.

Furthermore, the court noted that the engineer did not conduct an accident reconstruction, did not offer an alternative design, and did not do a cost analysis. He also did not review or rely upon any peer-reviewed literature on tone-ring dislodgment because there was none. Moreover, he did not review or rely upon literature from the Society of Automotive Engineers, and did not conduct any calculations. The engineer generated a conclusion that the Santa Fe’s ABS was defectively designed, but he provided no methodology concerning how he reached that conclusion, the court said.

Conclusion. In attempting to prove their products liability claim of defective design, the claimants offered two experts, neither of whom were qualified to offer opinions as to whether the Hyundai ABS was defectively designed. Neither experts’ testimony was based upon sufficient facts or data, nor was their testimony the product of reliable principles or methods. Their theories were not tested or subjected to peer review or publication. Neither offered testimony that their opinions were widely accepted in the scientific community. Both admitted that they had never seen or even heard of an accident being caused by a dislodged tone ring.

Their testimony, which was based on their subjective beliefs and unsupported speculation, failed to satisfy Rule 702 and Daubert and should have been excluded, the court concluded. The court held that failure to exclude such testimony was reversible error. Accordingly, the court reversed the jury’s verdict and rendered judgment in favor of Hyundai.

Dissent. Justice Kitchens disagreed with the majority’s finding that the trial court abused its discretion by admitting the testimony of the claimants’ designated experts. “I would hold that the trial court was within its discretion in ruling that [the claimants’ experts] were qualified to render testimony in their respective fields of expertise and that their testimony was reliable,” Justice Kitchens stated. The majority’s analysis adopted arguments advanced by Hyundai evincing its view of the weight of the evidence that were improper for evaluating the admissibility of expert testimony, the justice said. “By making mountains out of molehills regarding the expert testimony in this case and by imposing overly stringent requirements on [the designated] experts, the majority unfairly deprive[d] [the claimants] of their ability to recover for their injuries,” the dissenting justice opined.

This case is No. 2015-CA-01013-SCT.

Attorneys: Wohner J. Collins (Watkins & Eager PLLC) for Hyundai Motor America and Hyundai Motor Co. Ralph E. Chapman (Chapman Lewis & Swan PLLC) for Joyce D. Hutton and Derek Bell.

Companies: Hyundai Motor America; Hyundai Motor Co.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews ExpertEvidenceNews EvidentiaryNews MotorVehiclesNews MotorEquipmentNews MississippiNews

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