By MELINDA WILLIAMS
A Pulaski County jury says Hyundai Motor Co. must pay over $14 million to a man who sustained permanent brain damage in a February 2010 wreck.
Keith and Vanessa Duncan sued the car manufacturer on Gage Duncan’s behalf because the driver side air bag did not deploy when the 2008 Hyundai Tiburon Gage was driving struck a tree alongside Belspring Road. He was 16 years old at the time and sustained serious damage to the frontal lobes of his brain, according to Duncan’s attorney, Ari Casper.
A mistrial was declared in the case last year when a jury was unable to reach a decision following three weeks of testimony. Almost two weeks of trial this time around did not pose a stumbling block as a three-woman, four-man jury returned a verdict in Duncan’s favor.
In its verdict, the jury found that Hyundai “breached the implied warranty of merchantability” on the Tiburon and that as a result, Gage Duncan suffered irreversible brain injuries when the bag did not deploy.
As a result, the jury ruled that Hyundai should pay $14 million in damages to cover almost $2 million in projected lost wages over Gage’s lifetime and nearly $11 million in projected future medical expenses. The company also was ordered to pay $140,000 in medical expenses incurred since the wreck.
According to a summary of evidence each side presented the jury in closing arguments, the plaintiff (Duncans) contend the driver side air bag should have deployed when the Tiburon slid driver side first into the tree, but that it did not because the sensor was improperly placed under the driver seat.
Hyundai argued that the sensor was properly placed in the car and that it had performed properly in crash tests that gave it a four-out-of-five star safety rating under Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. In fact, Hyundai attorneys Tim Kirkner and Harlan Prater told the jury the vehicle was safer than required by standards at that time because side air bags weren’t a mandatory piece of equipment but Hyundai chose to put them in anyway.
According to the defense, the air bags didn’t fail to deploy because they were defective, but rather because of the angle the car impacted the tree. The plaintiff rejected Hyundai’s claim that the car was tilted up on the driver side tires at the time of the impact and that the bag was not intended to deploy in that type of collision. Even if the bag had deployed, the defense said, it would not have prevented Gage’s head from striking the area just above the driver side door.
As a result of his injuries, plaintiff evidence showed, Gage is withdrawn, has difficulty carrying on conversations, does not recognize when he is in danger and has violent outbursts that put family members and others around him in fear. They say he will be required to expend nearly $800,000 in future rehabilitative costs and an estimate $10 million in costs living in a group home where he can receive proper care and supervision.
The defense argued that plaintiff projections of lost future earnings and future medical expenses were arbitrary numbers with no basis in fact that were “created with the biggest possible numbers for the jury.” Kirkner and Prater also suggested the prognosis for Gage’s rehabilitation is better than the plaintiff contends.
“Sometimes bad things happen and there’s no one to blame,” Prater told the jury. “We believe this is one of those times.”