Hyundai calls Lake County verdict 'outrageous,' 'mistaken'

2014-05-15T07:17:00Z 2014-06-01T09:43:06Z Hyundai calls Lake County verdict 'outrageous,' 'mistaken'By KATHRYN HAAKE Missoulian The Billings Gazette
May 15, 2014 7:17 am  • 

A Hyundai spokesman promised an immediate appeal Wednesday, after jurors in Lake County said a manufacturing defect cost two Missoula teens their lives in a head-on crash and awarded their families $248 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

Company spokesman Jim Trainor called the decision “outrageous,” while an attorney for the families of Trevor and Tanner Olson thanked jurors for sending a message to the automaker.

“I had no preset expectations,” plaintiff’s attorney Mark Williams said Wednesday. “The jury felt strongly about the position that Hyundai took in the case. They wanted to send a message and I guess they did.”

After 12 hours of deliberation in two separate sessions, jurors returned to District Judge Kim Christopher’s courtroom late Tuesday night with the final verdict.

The Olson family was awarded $240 million in punitive damages – after jurors found Hyundai acted with “actual malice” by not recalling and replacing faulty steering knuckles – and another $8 million in compensatory damages.

Cousins Trevor Olson, 19, and Tanner Olson, 14, were traveling northbound on U.S. Highway 93 between Arlee and Ravalli when their 2005 Hyundai Tiburon suddenly veered into the path of a southbound Pontiac Grand Am.

Both of the Olsons were killed in the horrific July 2011 crash, as was an Arlee woman in the other car. Her husband and two children were seriously injured. That family was not part of the lawsuit against Hyundai.

At trial, the manufacturer insisted that the teenagers were lighting fireworks in the car, while the Olsons’ attorneys said a defective steering knuckle was to blame.

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After two full weeks of testimony, jurors started deliberating at 6:15 p.m. Monday.

They deliberated until late that evening and resumed at 9 a.m. Tuesday. Around 4:30 p.m., jurors ruled the families were entitled to $8.6 million in compensatory damages.

Each parent would receive $1 million, while each full sibling was awarded $500,000. Jurors awarded another $2.68 million to Trevor’s estate to compensate for his lifetime lost wages, after determining that he had not died instantly in the crash.

But jurors also said that Hyundai acted with actual malice, meaning the company had knowledge of the defect and could have recalled the vehicles to fix the faulty steering knuckles, but didn't. And that meant jurors returned to deliberations to determine a second award, of punitive damages.

In closing arguments, plaintiffs’ attorney John Bohyer argued that it would have cost the $50 billion automaker about $2 billion to fix the problem by recalling 5 million vehicles Hyundai sold between 2000 and 2011.

For Hyundai, it was “cheaper to pay for the deaths of two dead boys in Montana,” he said.

The Olsons’ attorneys initially suggested a punitive award of 10 times the actual damages – or about $80 million.

Jurors returned late Tuesday night and announced their decision, awarding another $240 million to the families. They ordered Hyundai Motor Company to pay $150 million to the families and Hyundai Motor America to pay $90 million.

“The jury worked very hard and paid close attention during the trial and worked hard during 12-plus hours of jury deliberations,” Williams said on Wednesday. “And we very much appreciate their hard work.”

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Hyundai’s attorneys couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday, but company spokesperson Trainor called the jury’s decision “outrageous” and said the company would seek an appeal immediately.

“Hyundai firmly believes the jury’s verdict in Olson vs. Hyundai is mistaken and award of damages at three times what was sought by plaintiffs is outrageous and should be overturned, as Hyundai is not at fault,” Trainor wrote in a statement.

He argued that eyewitness testimony verified that fireworks had exploded in the 2005 Hyundai Tiburon, and that the teenagers were not wearing seat belts when their car collided with the southbound vehicle head-on at speeds of 140 mph.

It’s unclear if the jury’s verdict on the punitive damages will stand. Montana currently has a $10 million cap on punitive damages, but that is being appealed to the Montana Supreme Court.

Christopher also must review the jury’s decision and rule on whether the award is appropriate.

Both sides will likely file several motions before the case is transferred to the Montana Supreme Court.

Hyundai must file its appeal 30 days after that transfer.

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