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Virginia State Insignia

Testimony of Auto Design Expert Barred by VA Supreme Court

In a Daubert-like challenge, the Supreme Court of Virginia barred the testimony of an expert hired by the guardians and conservators of a person severely injured in a single-car automobile collision. (Hyundai Motor Company, LTD, et al vs. Duncan Record No. 140216)

Factual and Procedural Background

The case involved a single car collision involving a Hyundai driven by Zachary Gage Duncan. He lost control of the car, it ran off the road, hit a snow bank, a bale of hay, and ultimately, a tree. The impact was to the driver’s side of the car, and the driver suffered a closed-head injury despite the car being equipped with side airbags. Although the case had to be tried twice, it ultimately resulted in a verdict for the Plaintiffs of about $14 Million.

The original complaint alleged various theories of wrongdoing; it went to trial on the theory of breach of implied warranty of merchantability. Specifically, Plaintiffs contended that the car was defective, unreasonably dangerous, was unfit for its intended purpose and “did not pass without objection in the industry in which it was sold.” The crux of the defect, according to the Plaintiffs, was that the driver’s side airbag sensor was misplaced and for that reason, the airbag did not deploy on impact.

Discovery and the Expert Witness

The Plaintiffs hired a mechanical engineer, Geoffrey Mahon, as an expert to testify that the car was defectively designed. His opinion was that had the airbag sensor been installed in the pillar where the door closes, rather than on the cross-member under the driver’s seat, the airbag would have deployed when the collision occurred. He, therefore, concluded that it was the placement of the sensor that made the car unreasonably dangerous.

What the Expert Didn’t Do was Crucial to the Outcome

Before trial, and for the reasons discussed below, Hyundai sought to exclude Mr. Mahon’s testimony. The motion in limine was denied and the case went to trial.

As we will discuss, the problem with the expert’s opinion is that in reaching it, he relied on only a computer-aided design study that the car manufacturer had conducted some years prior. That study looked at more than a dozen possible locations for the sensor. One was on the pillar where the door closes, locating it 8-10 inches from the floor. The expert dismissed all of the options that the manufacturer considered, and concluded that locating the sensor on that pillar, but 4-6 inches from the floor instead, “would be his first choice.”

The expert was, at the least, intellectually honest. He stated that since the car manufacturer did not analyze the location that he thought was best, he would “have to run tests to verify that that’s just the right location, but based on [Hyundai’s] evidence of the somewhat higher pillar location, that looks very promising.” He also testified that whether or not a properly functioning airbag would have made a difference, he would have to examine the structure of the vehicle along with the sensors themselves and the attending mathematical algorithms. Significantly, the Plaintiffs’ expert testified that he had not performed any testing nor made any calculations. Nonetheless, the trial court found for the Plaintiffs.

On appeal, the Virginia Supreme Court reversed. It held that the expert’s opinion was based on the assumption that the airbag would have deployed had it been placed elsewhere in the driver’s side door. But, Mr. Mahon did not perform any tests or calculations, nor was any presented at trial to support his opinion. The Supreme Cout held that the expert’s opinion lacked factual basis and was, therefore, inadmissible.