Hyundai Hit With $240 Million Fine In Wrongful Death Suit, Plans To Appeal

May 15, 2014

With all the attention-grabbing lawsuits being aimed at General Motors right now, it's easy to forget that every automaker spends a significant amount of time in court, dealing with cases that range from the earnest to the inane. One case that falls into the former camp just wrapped up in Montana, and the jury's findings were anything but frivolous for Hyundai.

According to Detroit News, the lawsuit in question was brought by the families of 19-year-old Trevor Olson and 14-year-old Tanner Olson -- cousins who were killed in a head-on collision back in 2011. The families allege that the 2005 Hyundai Tiburon Trevor Olson was driving at the time of the accident was defective, and that this defect caused the Tiburon to veer into oncoming traffic, killing not only the Olsons but also Stephanie Nicole Parker-Shepherd, a passenger in the other vehicle.

The jury has ordered Hyundai to pay punitive damages of $240 million. Hyundai is appealing the judgement.

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES

It's often a losing game for companies to fight awards like this. Much of the public is predisposed to see friends and family of the deceased as victims of a callous corporation, so under normal circumstances, it would be hard for Hyundai to earn much sympathy. But this case is different, and several key factors weigh in Hyundai's favor.

For starters, although Hyundai did issue a small recall for Tiburons in 2005 due to a steering problem, it's unclear whether the Olson's vehicle was included in that recall. And even if it were, the defective steering knuckle that plaintiffs say caused the Olsons' accident wasn't the cause of the official 2005 recall. Translation: if the Tiburon was known to be defective, that could weigh heavily in the Olson's favor, but as it is, that issue doesn't seem to have much bearing.

Furthermore, Hyundai claims that fireworks exploded in the Olson's vehicle immediately prior to the accident. Though there's some question as to whether that's truly the case, the possibility that it happened -- paired with the fact that neither of the Olsons was wearing a seatbelt -- paints an unflattering portrait of the deceased as reckless teens. Blaming the victim is a terrible thing to do, and it's a strategy that often backfires in court, but it's hard to ignore the possibilities in this case.

And last but not least, there's the size of the judgment to consider. Montana currently has a $10 million cap on punitive damages, though that law being disputed at the moment as part of another case. In any event, the $240 million is, according to Hyundai, three times the sum sought by the plaintiffs. So, not only has the jury surpassed the legal limit for damages in its judgment, but it's also surpassed the demands of plaintiffs.

Hyundai may not be able to win the case itself, but these facts suggest that the automaker might be able to whittle away at the fine it's being forced to pay.  

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