Posted on Jan 22, 2006
Vancouver man awarded $8 million
Saturday, January 21, 2006
By ERIK ROBINSON, Columbian staff writer
A Vancouver man paralyzed in an auto accident nine years ago renewed his claim Friday to the biggest jury award in Clark County history.
In a default ruling against Hyundai Motor America, Superior Court Judge Barbara Johnson rebuked the automaker for failing to disclose seat-back failures in similar cases across the country. A retrial on the case, which resulted in an $8 million jury award in 2002, was to have started on Monday.
Victim Jesse Magana, 47, said Friday that he's gratified by Johnson's decision and hopes it leads to a recall of Hyundai seat backs.
"At the end of the day, Hyundai goes home. They go on making their cars, and I go home unable to move or feel from the chest down," said Magana, who was ejected out of the hatchback of a 1996 Hyundai Accent in a 1997 accident near La Center. "So I don't necessarily consider that a win."
Hyundai will appeal Johnson's decision, according to a spokesman for the company in Fountain Valley, Calif.
"At this point, I can tell you I haven't had a chance to review the decision with our lead counsel who was in the room," Hyundai spokesman Miles Johnson said. "I can't speak for him and what actually took place."
That attorney, Tom Vanderford, earlier in the day deferred comment to company headquarters in California.
It wasn't a good day for Hyundai.
In 2004, the state Court of Appeals ruled in the company's favor, saying Johnson erred in the 2002 jury trial when she didn't tell jurors to disregard testimony from a witness. In preparation for next week's retrial, Magana's attorneys renewed a request that Hyundai disclose any prior claims related to seat failures of the kind that occurred in his accident.
That request, part of what is known in legal circles as the discovery process, resulted in the disclosure by the company of two such claims, said Mike Withey, a Seattle-based attorney representing Magana.
Withey said attorneys also learned of a third claim that Hyundai hadn't disclosed. That information would have bolstered Magana's case in 2002.
"We went through a whole trial based on a fiction," Withey said.
Alerted by this new information, Johnson ordered the company to disclose all information relating to such seat failures. This time, the company disclosed dozens of incidents involving seat or seat-back failures a total of 47, according to Withey.
"We ended up getting more than five boxes full," he said.
On Friday, Johnson pulled the plug on the retrial.
"A fair trial on the merits is not possible at this time, given the posture of this case," she said. "The failure to disclose in a timely manner was highly prejudicial to the entire process, both to the plaintiff and to the entire system."
Johnson will issue a written order during a hearing scheduled for Feb. 2.
Although Johnson said she didn't reach the decision lightly she acknowledged the $8 million verdict is "very substantial" the judge said a default judgment was the only appropriate sanction available for violations she described as substantial, willful and prejudicial to Magana and the justice system.
The judge rejected other sanctions, such as continuing the trial to another date which she said would only benefit Hyundai or fining the company.
"It is very difficult to know what monetary amount would be appropriate in such a case. Hyundai is a multibillion-dollar corporation," Johnson said. "A monetary fine would do nothing to serve the search for truth and justice, which is the purpose of this court."
In filings read aloud on Friday in court by Johnson, Hyundai contended that the company "directed a diligent search for all legal complaints (lawsuits) and all attorney demand letters (claims) in connection with or involving the seat or seatback of the Hyundai Accent, model years 1996 to 1999."
But Johnson dismissed Hyundai's implication that the company's legal department merely misunderstood the plaintiff's request for claims against the automaker and that the plaintiff's attorneys were not clear enough in their request.
"These are attorneys. They are very fine attorneys, they are very skilled attorneys," Johnson said. "They know how to say 'attorney demand letters.'"
Johnson ruled that the documents were "highly material to the issues in the case," and the company had no reasonable excuse for failing to provide the claims. She noted that the company's legal department had even gone so far as to develop a form letter to address seat-back safety claims, underscoring the company's willful disregard for turning them over to Magana.
"These violations were egregious," Johnson said.
For his part, Magana said he hopes the case leads to a recall of seat backs as faulty as the one involved in his accident.
Withey said attorneys plan to send the claims involving Hyundai seat backs to federal highway safety officials.
A spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Friday that the government had issued no current or past recalls related to seat-back failures in accidents and was aware of only one complaint. Beyond that, federal officials declined to comment on the lawsuit.
"I hope that other companies look at this and see the spanking Hyundai got for violating discovery, and that they don't do it," Magana said.