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Hyundai Motor Co., Ltd. v. Duncan

Supreme Court of Virginia

January 8, 2015

HYUNDAI MOTOR COMPANY, LTD., ET AL.
v.
KEITH ALLEN DUNCAN, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS GUARDIAN AND CONSERVATOR FOR ZACHARY GAGE DUNCAN, ET AL

FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF PULASKI COUNTY. Colin R. Gibb, Judge.

J. Tracy Walker, IV (Robert W. Loftin; Samuel T. Towell; Harlan I. Prater, IV; Thomas N. Vanderford, Jr.; Timothy E. Kirtner; Andrew B. Cooke; McGuireWoods; Lightfoot, Franklin & White; Gilmer, Sadler, Ingram, Sutherland & Hutton; Flaherty Sensabaugh & Bonasso, on briefs), for appellants.

L. Steven Emmert (William P. Wallace, Jr.; Ari S. Casper; Sykes, Bourdon, Ahern & Levy; Johnson, Ayers & Matthews; Casper Law Firm, on brief), for appellees.

Amicus Curiae: Product Liability Advisory Council, Inc. (Hugh F. Young, Jr.; Eric C. Tew; Dykema Gossett, on brief), in support of appellants.

Amici Curiae: Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and Association of Global Automakers (Victor E. Schwartz; Philip S. Goldberg; Virginia Knapp Dorell; Shook, Hardy & Bacon, on brief), in support of appellants.

Amici Curiae: Virginia Chamber of Commerce and Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America (Kathryn L. Comerford Todd; George P. Sibley, III; John E. Beerbower; Hunton & Williams, on brief), in support of appellants.

Amicus Curiae: Virginia Trial Lawyers Association (Michael Imprevento; Cory R. Ford; Breit, Drescher, Imprevento & Walker; WilliamsFord, on brief), in support of appellees.

PRESENT: Lemons, C.J., Millette, Mims, McClanahan, and Powell, JJ., and Russell and Lacy, S.JJ. OPINION BY JUSTICE ELIZABETH A. McCLANAHAN. JUSTICE POWELL, dissenting.

OPINION

Page 894

[289 Va. 150] ELIZABETH A. McCLANAHAN, JUSTICE.

In this products liability action, Hyundai Motor Company, Ltd., and Hyundai Motor America, Inc. (Hyundai) appeal from a judgment entered on a jury verdict in favor of Keith Allen Duncan and Vanessa Duncan, Guardians and Conservators for Zachary Gage Duncan (Gage), and Keith Allen Duncan and Vanessa Duncan, Individually.[1] Hyundai contends the circuit court erred in admitting the opinion testimony of the Duncans' designated expert witness, who testified that the location of the side airbag sensor in the 2008 Hyundai Tiburon being driven by Gage when he sustained injuries in a single-vehicle accident rendered the Tiburon unreasonably dangerous. We agree and will reverse the judgment of the circuit court.

I. BACKGROUND

Gage sustained a serious closed-head injury while driving his 2008 Hyundai Tiburon when he lost control of the vehicle, causing the vehicle to leave the road, strike two snow banks and a large bale of hay, before ultimately colliding with a tree on the driver's side of the vehicle. Although the Tiburon was equipped with a side airbag system, the airbag did not deploy.

The Duncans brought an action against Hyundai, which manufactured and distributed the 2008 Tiburon being driven by Gage, and initially asserted claims for negligence, failure to warn, breach of implied warranty of merchantability, breach of implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose, and breach of express warranties. At trial, the Duncans pursued only their claim for breach of implied warranty of merchantability in which they assert that the " Tiburon was defective, unreasonably dangerous, was not fit for the ordinary purpose for which it was intended, and did not pass without objection in the industry in which it was sold." Specifically, the Duncans contend that if the sensor for the side airbag system had been placed in a different location, the airbag would have deployed and prevented Gage's injury.

[289 Va. 151] II. Expert Testimony of Design Defect

To support their claim, the Duncans designated Geoffrey Mahon (Mahon), a mechanical engineer, as an expert in airbag design to testify that the 2008 Hyundai Tiburon was defectively designed. Mahon expressed the opinion that if Hyundai had located the sensor for the side airbag system on the B-pillar of the vehicle (the pillar where the front door closes), approximately 4 to 6 inches from the floor, instead of on the cross-member underneath the driver's seat, the side airbag would

Page 895

have deployed. Therefore, according to Mahon, the location of the side airbag sensor on the cross-member rendered the 2008 Tiburon unreasonably dangerous.

A. Motion in Limine

Prior to trial, Hyundai moved to exclude Mahon's opinions as having an insufficient foundation because Mahon did not conduct any analysis to determine whether the side airbag would have deployed ...


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