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Hyundai Motor Co. v. Duncan

August 5, 2020

In this case, involving allegations that the placement of an airbag sensor was unreasonably dangerous, the lack of a foundation for expert opinion testimony resulted in reversal of a jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff/motorist.  The Plaintiff, Zachary Gage Duncan, alleged through his guardian and conservator that he sustained a serious closed-head injury when he lost control of his 2008 Hyundai Tiburon, striking a tree. The vehicle was equipped with a side airbag system, but the airbag did not deploy.

Plaintiff retained a mechanical engineer to testify that the airbag design was defective. The sensor in the subject vehicle was located underneath the driver’s seat. Plaintiff alleged that the sensor should have been located in the B-pillar of the vehicle (the pillar where the driver’s side door closes). Plaintiff’s expert conceded that the system complied with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. He further testified that he did not perform an analysis to determine whether the airbag would have deployed if it had been located in a different location, but instead relied upon a 1999 study undertaken by Hyundai. He conceded that the location of the airbag sensor is critical as it must determine within milliseconds whether the airbag should deploy. The trial court allowed such testimony and the jury rendered a verdict in favor of the Plaintiff in the amount of $14,140,000.00.

In overturning the jury verdict, the Supreme Court of Virginia held that Plaintiff’s expert lacked foundation for his opinions. His opinions were premised upon his assumption that the side airbag would have deployed if the sensor had been located on the vehicle’s B-pillar. However, he did not perform any tests to determine whether a different sensor location or structure would have caused the side airbag to deploy in Plaintiff’s vehicle. The Supreme Court reversed the trial court and entered judgment in favor of Hyundai.