On Thursday, September 16, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed a $2.2 million jury verdict against Hyundai Motor Company and rendered a judgment for Hyundai, after finding that a significant number of jurors had been unlawfully excused prior to trial and that unqualified expert witnesses were permitted to testify. The appeal was handled by Bradley attorneys Michael J. Bentley (Mississippi) and Zachary Madonia (Alabama).
This automotive products liability case arose from a rollover accident in 2005 involving a 2005 Hyundai Santa Fe. The driver and a passenger of the Santa Fe sued Hyundai for injuries sustained in the accident, alleging that the car’s anti-lock braking system (ABS) was defective. The plaintiffs claimed that a piece of road debris hit the right front wheel speed sensor ring (a component of the ABS), displacing it and causing the ABS to suddenly malfunction, which caused the driver to lose control of the car. The plaintiffs’ defect theory, developed by a local mechanic, was that the sensor ring was knocked “catawampus” because it was not properly protected. After a two-week trial in 2014, jurors in Cleveland, Mississippi (Bolivar County) returned a $2.2 million verdict against Hyundai.
Hyundai retained Bradley’s appellate team to appeal the verdict to the Mississippi Supreme Court and, on September 16, the court reversed the verdict and rendered judgment for Hyundai. The court agreed with Hyundai’s two key arguments for reversal.
First, a 5-2 majority of the justices held that neither of plaintiffs' two experts — the mechanic and a metallurgist — were qualified to testify about whether the Santa Fe's ABS was defectively designed and that “neither expert's testimony was based on sufficient facts or data, nor was their testimony the product of reliable principles or methods.” The court agreed that their testimony was based on unsupported speculation, should have been excluded under the Daubert reliability standard, and the failure to exclude that unreliable testimony was a reversible error. The court’s opinion gives new and thorough guidance to litigants and trial judges about the qualifications necessary to offer defective design and feasible alternative design opinions in an automotive products liability case.
Second, the court agreed with Hyundai’s arguments on an important jury venire issue. At trial, Hyundai argued that the integrity of the jury was compromised because the court clerk, without any judicial supervision, had improperly excused many of the summoned jurors before the trial began. Many of the jurors who were excused outside of open court claimed that they were employed and serving on a jury would cause a financial hardship, which skewed the gender and employment demographics of the jury. Hyundai’s objections were overruled by the trial court. On appeal, the Supreme Court agreed with Hyundai and, in a ruling aimed at ensuring juries are comprised of a fair cross-section of the community going forward, held that the power to excuse jurors was reserved for the trial judge alone.