Products Liability Law Daily Claims against Hyundai by estate of woman crushed by vehicle proceed to trial
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Monday, October 15, 2018

Claims against Hyundai by estate of woman crushed by vehicle proceed to trial

By David Yucht, J.D.

In an action brought against Hyundai Motor Company by the estate of a woman who was killed when she was pinned between her house and her vehicle, a federal district court in Virginia denied the automaker’s motion for summary judgment and refused to dismiss the estate’s breach of implied warranty of merchantability claim. The court also denied motions filed by both the estate and the manufacturer to exclude expert testimony (Whitaker v. Hyundai Motor Co., October 10, 2018, Urbanski, M.).

On the day of the accident, the woman pulled her vehicle into her driveway, which had a slight downward slope. She turned the engine off and removed the key from the vehicle’s ignition without realizing that the transmission was still in the Drive position. As she exited, the vehicle rolled forward and crashed into the side of her house, crushing her to death. An investigation revealed that a solenoid in the vehicle's steering column, designed to prevent an individual from removing an ignition key when a vehicle's transmission is not in Park, was disconnected. The woman’s estate filed suit against Hyundai Motor Company. Hyundai filed motions to exclude the estate’s expert witness testimony and for summary judgment. The estate filed motions to exclude the testimony of Hyundai’s expert witnesses.

Estate’s expert testimony. Finding that the opinions of the estate’s materials engineering expert were supported by his experience, training, and analysis and by the cited scientific literature, the court denied Hyundai’s motion to exclude his testimony. This witness was a Registered Professional Metallurgical Engineer who had worked in his area of expertise for over 20 years. He orchestrated a two-day laboratory examination of the vehicle and solenoid connection. Based on his examination of marks on the solenoid’s metal connector blades and his comparison to exemplar connectors, he opined that the connector was not fully engaged in its locked position when manufactured and had become completely disengaged, allowing the key to be removed when the vehicle was not in Park. There was no basis to question his qualifications, experience, scientific method, or the data he obtained, the court determined.

The court also denied Hyundai’s motion to exclude the testimony of the estate’s failure analysis expert. The court noted that an expert is not required to perform his own analysis but, rather, may rely on data produced by others to inform his opinion. This expert relied on the tests performed by the estate’s metallurgist. Because the court had held that the metallurgist’s testimony was admissible, the failure analyst’s opinion was admissible as well.

Hyundai’s expert testimony. Likewise, the court denied the estate’s motion to exclude Hyundai’s automotive and metallurgy experts. The automotive expert indicated that the metal blades in the solenoid connector exhibited signs of being fully engaged. Certain gouge marks in its plastic housing showed that the lock tabs in the connector housing were disconnected using a metal tool. He based these opinions on two examinations of the subject solenoid connector and ten exemplar connectors taken from similar vehicles. His testimony was based on his own experience with such connectors and tools, combined with the absence of such marks on the exemplar connectors.

Hyundai’s metallurgist identified portions of the plastic flashing that were squashed, indicating that the connection had been fully made. His opinion that the plastic connector had been fully joined at one point in time was bolstered by the tool marks he saw and by Hyundai's automotive expert’s testimony as to use of a metal tool to separate such connectors. The metallurgist also testified that the metal blades showed the presence of carbon, which he stated was evidence of an electrical connection between the metal blades. He opined that the connectors had previously been fully joined. The court found that Hyundai’s metallurgist’s opinion was grounded in his education, years of experience, and his detailed examination of the solenoid connector and exemplars.

Implied warranty of merchantability. Finding that the estate had adequately pleaded breach of an implied warranty of merchantability, the court denied Hyundai’s motion for summary judgment. To prove a breach of the implied warranty of merchantability, a consumer must demonstrate that the goods were unreasonably dangerous for the use to which they would ordinarily be put, and that the unreasonably dangerous condition existed when the goods left the manufacturer's hands.

The court was not swayed by Hyundai’s argument that the warranty claim failed because the decedent had misused the vehicle by taking the key out of the ignition while the car was in Drive. Under Virginia law, foreseeable misuse does not defeat a claim for breach of warranty. The court noted that the purpose of the solenoid, which was mandated by federal law, was to prevent the kind of accident that occurred here. Given the law and the purpose of the solenoid, a jury could find that the decedent’s alleged misuse of the vehicle was foreseeable. The court was equally unimpressed by Hyundai’s argument that the estate had not proffered sufficient evidence of causation, noting that there was ample circumstantial evidence from which a jury could conclude that the disconnected solenoid was responsible for the accident.

Hyundai also tried to convince the court that it was not responsible for the accident because the vehicle was not made by Hyundai Motor Company but, rather, by "Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama, LLC." The court, however, noted that the identity of the manufacturer was not dispositive. What mattered was whether the unreasonably dangerous condition existed when the goods left Hyundai Motor Company’s hands. The estate produced ample evidence for a jury to conclude that the vehicle was sold under the Hyundai trade name, rendering Hyundai Motor Company liable. Finally, in dismissing Hyundai’s assertion that the estate failed to provide it with reasonable notice of the breach, the court noted that the estate and Hyundai found out about the allegedly defective condition at the same time.

The case is No. 7:17-cv-00055.

Attorneys: Gregory S. Scott (Lowe Eklund Wakefield Co., LPA) for Clarence Edward Whitaker. Christopher Channing Spencer (Spencer LLP) and Timothy Edmond Kirtner (Gilmer, Sadler, Ingram, Sutherland & Hutton) for Hyundai Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor America, Inc.

Companies: Hyundai Motor Co.; Hyundai Motor America, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews MotorVehiclesNews DefensesLiabilityNews CausationNews MotorEquipmentNews ExpertEvidenceNews VirginiaNews

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