POLSON – Did two Missoula teenagers die because Hyundai Motors ignored problems with the steering knuckles installed in its vehicles in order to save itself the $2 billion it would have cost to recall and replace them?
Or did cousins Trevor and Tanner Olson die because they were lighting fireworks, purchased 30 minutes earlier, as they drove north toward Flathead Lake for the Fourth of July holiday in 2011, and one exploded inside their 2005 Hyundai Tiburon, causing Trevor to react and swerve suddenly into an oncoming vehicle?
A Lake County jury is deciding.
Jurors began deliberations at 6:15 p.m. Monday, several hours later than planned, after attorneys for the Olson estates and the car manufacturer wrangled much of the morning over the instructions the nine women and three men would be given.
The Olsons are suing Hyundai, alleging a defective steering knuckle caused the horrific crash that killed one more person and injured three others.
The first thing jurors must decide is if the Tiburon contained a defective right front steering knuckle. If the answer is no, they’re done.
If they answer yes, they must then determine if it caused the July 2, 2011 accident on U.S. Highway 93 between Arlee and Ravalli.
Again, if they answer no, they’re done.
If they answer yes, they’ll have seven more questions to answer to determine the damages to be paid to the Olsons’ survivors.
District Court Judge Kim Christopher instructed jurors that only eight of the 12 must agree on an answer, and the same eight do not have to agree on every answer.
Both sides had vastly different takes, during closing arguments, on 127 cases of warranty work done to repair steering knuckles on other Hyundais prior to the Highway 93 accident.
Originally scheduled to start at 10 a.m., closing statements did not begin until almost 2:30 p.m.
Olson attorney John Bohyer said in one case, a knuckle cracked after 800 miles and in 2002, nine years before the fatal Lake County accident, a “deformed” knuckle was found in a new car with just 12 miles on it.
“Did Hyundai investigate? No,” Bohyer said. “They’d just slap a new knuckle on and say all is good … except two boys are dead.”
Bohyer said had Hyundai investigated its manufacturing process and found it needed to replace two steering knuckles on the 5 million vehicles the company sold between 2000 and 2011, it would have cost the company $2 billion.
Bohyer said the car company figured it would be “cheaper to pay for the deaths of two dead boys in Montana” than to spend $2 billion addressing the alleged problem.
Hyundai attorney Kevin Young suggested 127 claims out of millions of cars sold does not indicate a manufacturing problem, and added that 111 of them may have been a bearing problem, and eight more included other parts.
Plaintiffs and the defense also argued over the credibility of each other’s expert witnesses during closing arguments.
Olson attorney Mark Williams called Hyundai’s experts “a group of highly paid spokesmen for car companies who have made themselves millionaires” testifying in lawsuits against manufacturers that the car is never the problem, the driver always is.
Defense attorney Kevin Young said the metallurgist from Montana Tech who said the right front steering knuckle on the Tiburon had already suffered damage and finally broke after hitting a bump a moment before the accident “does not bring the science necessary.”
“For a full scientific analysis, where all the parts have bent and moved around, you have to understand more than metallurgy,” Young said. Young’s colleague, David Prichard, charged that there were 14 errors in computer crash reconstruction work done by another Olson witness, including the wrong steering ratio, wrong tires, wrong body model, wrong point of impact angle and wrong computer program used.
As expected, Young pointed out to jurors, in photographs from the crash scene, a small orange object he suggested might be a lighter lying in debris from the crash on the road.
Olson attorneys stressed during the trial that no ignition source for fireworks was found inside the Tiburon by investigating officers.
The object pictured on the ground – apparently never noticed by anyone until last week when the trial was already eight days old – was at the center of some heated courtroom debate while the jury was not present. Hyundai’s lawyers argued it was in photographs that had already been admitted as evidence; Williams and Bohyer charged that Hyundai’s attorneys had come within a fraction of an inch of causing a mistrial.
Williams called the question of fireworks “a red herring” designed to take the jury’s attention away from the steering knuckle.
The Montana highway patrolman who was the lead investigator found no evidence of exploded fireworks inside the car and neither did the Montana State Crime Lab, Williams said.
“A year later a private investigator finds bits and pieces of one firecracker” on the driver’s side floor, he went on. “Here’s what they did not find: No trace (of fireworks having exploded) on the visor, on the seats, on the sunroof, on the boys’ clothes, none on Tanner’s hair.”
Williams said experts testified the Hyundai swerved at a 180-degree angle – Young later said no, the testimony had been 80 to 90 degrees – and would have been impossible under normal circumstances.
“It was not a flinch by a startled driver,” Williams said.
Young said the question of fireworks exploding inside the vehicle was a theory long before Hyundai was sued, and Hyundai has never maintained that singed hair on Tanner Olson’s head was caused by fireworks.
“There’s no doubt fireworks went off inside the car” now that experts have testified, he said. The object in the debris outside the vehicle – presumably swept up and discarded when the accident scene was cleaned – is “an equally plausible explanation” to there being no ignition source found inside the Tiburon.
Williams told the jury there was no way to know what the object in the debris was or which vehicle it came from.
“You become the conscience of the community,” he told jurors, with the ability to send a message to automakers that they need to pay attention when problems in their vehicles occur, investigate, and make them safe.
Young urged the jury to send a different message: “That reasonable, calm, logical people can listen to evidence, and return a fair verdict.”