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From Products Liability Law Daily, March 1, 2019

Hyundai off the hook for woman’s accidental death

By Georgia D. Koutouzos, J.D.

Pre-owned SUV wasn’t defective when it left the automaker’s hands.

A federal jury in Virginia has cleared Hyundai Motor Co. of liability for the death of a woman who was pinned up against her house after her pre-owned Hyundai Santa Fe rolled down the driveway of her home after she had exited the sport utility vehicle. Despite the contention by the decedent’s spouse that Hyundai knew of a dangerous defect in the SUV that had the potential to result in unintentional movement, the jury determined that the Santa Fe wasn’t defective when it left Hyundai’s possession (Whitaker v. Hyundai Motor Co., February 27, 2019, Urbanski, M.).

A Virginia couple purchased a 2007 Hyundai Santa Fe compact SUV in 2015, which was sold by the dealer as a used vehicle without substantial modification of its original condition, except for normal wear and tear. Approximately seven months later and with its engine turned off, the SUV rolled forward from the driveway of the couple’s home and butted up against the side of the house, pinning the wife between the driver’s door and the vehicle’s frame and killing her. At the time of the accident, the key had been removed from the ignition cylinder, but the cylinder was in a position other than "LOCK," and the gear shift selector was in a position other than "park."

The deceased woman’s spouse filed suit against Hyundai Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor America, Inc., asserting that the companies negligently designed, manufactured, assembled, distributed, and placed the SUV into the stream of commerce. Moreover, the vehicle was defective and unreasonably dangerous for its ordinary and foreseeable use and in violation of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards as well as industry customs and standards, he argued, alleging that Hyundai breached its duty of care to foreseeable users and consumers to provide a motor vehicle that was reasonably safe for its intended and foreseeable uses.

Citing two voluntary safety recalls in 2009 and 2013 involving a stop lamp switch whose failure had the potential to result in the transmission shifter moving out of "park" when the ignition switch was in the "ON" position (the at-issue SUV was not included in the recall), the complaint contended that the automaker knew of or should have known of the unreasonable and dangerous defect and yet failed to warn consumers of that defect, thereby breaching its implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose to all foreseeable consumers. The defect was the proximate cause of his wife’s death, the decedent’s spouse alleged, demanding a jury trial and seeking approximately $18 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

The case was tried to a jury, which found that the couple’s vehicle had an unreasonably dangerous defect but nevertheless concluded that the unreasonably dangerous defect was not present when the Santa Fe left the manufacturer’s hands.

The case is No. 7:17-cv-00055.

Attorneys: Gregory S. Scott (Lowe Eklund Wakefield Co., LPA) for Clarence Edward Whitaker. Christopher Channing Spencer (Spencer LLP) for Hyundai Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor America, Inc.

Companies: Hyundai Motor Co.; Hyundai Motor America, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory JuryVerdictsNewsStory DesignManufacturingNews CausationNews DamagesNews MotorVehiclesNews VirginiaNews

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