POLSON – A Lake County jury ruled Tuesday that a defect in a 2005 Hyundai Tiburon caused the fatal crash that killed two Missoula cousins on Fourth of July weekend 2011 – and that the manufacturer acted with “actual malice.”
The jury of nine women and three men awarded compensatory damages of $1 million to each parent and $500,000 to each full sibling of Trevor Olson, who was driving, and his younger cousin Tanner Olson.
In addition, jurors found that Trevor didn’t die instantaneously and awarded his family $2,606,668 to compensate for the teenager’s lost lifetime earnings.
They found that Tanner, who was 14 at the time, died instantly.
In the four-page verdict, jurors also determined that Hyundai Motor Company and Hyundai Motor America acted with “actual malice,” warranting punitive damages. That amount was determined late Tuesday night, after attorneys presented additional arguments and jurors completed a second round of deliberations.
In that separate verdict, jurors awarded the families punitive damages totaling $240 million - $150 million from Hyundai Motor Company and $90 million from Hyundai Motor America.
The Olson boys were driving north on U.S. Highway 93 to Flathead Lake for the Fourth of July holiday when their Tiburon swerved violently into oncoming traffic and hit a car driving south – killing an Arlee woman and injuring her husband and two children. The woman’s estate wasn’t included in the lawsuit.
The Olson family sued Hyundai, claiming a defective steering knuckle caused the horrific crash. Their attorneys presented evidence of 127 cases of warranty work done to repair steering knuckles on other Hyundais prior to the wreck.
Attorney John Bohyer said in one case, a knuckle cracked after 800 miles and in 2002, nine years before the fatal Lake County wreck, a “deformed” knuckle was found in a new car with just 12 miles on it.
But lawyers for the company claimed the Olsons lit fireworks in the car, after purchasing them on Evaro Hill. They said one of the fireworks exploded, causing 19-year-old Trevor to react and swerve into oncoming traffic.
Jurors began their deliberations at 6:15 p.m. Monday, and returned with a decision at about 5 p.m. Tuesday. Attorneys then presented additional arguments related to the punitive damages and the jury again entered into deliberations, returning late Tuesday night with the punitive damage ruling.
In her instructions to jurors, Lake County District Judge Kim Christopher explained they first needed to decide if the Tiburon contained a defective right front steering knuckle. Had they answered no, deliberations would have concluded.
When they answered yes, jurors then had to determine if the defective part caused the July 2, 2011 wreck on Highway 93 between Arlee and Ravalli.
Again, jurors answered yes, marking an “X” on their verdict.
Then they had to work through seven additional questions to determine the damages to be paid to the Olsons’ survivors. Only eight of the 12 jurors needed to agree on an answer, and the same eight did not have to agree on every answer.
“What amount of damages will compensate the heirs of the estate of Trevor Olson for his wrongful death? Did Trevor Olson die instantaneously? If no, what amount of damages will compensate the estate of Trevor Olson for his lifetime lost earnings and for conscious mental and physical pain and suffering in the interval between injury and death?”
By finding that Trevor did not die instantly, jurors were able to not only award the Olson parents $1 million each and his siblings $500,000 each, but could add the $2.6 million in lost lifetime earnings.
Then came the same questions about Tanner Olson’s death. Jurors awarded the same amount to each of his parents and full siblings, but determined that Tanner died instantaneously so did not compensate his family for the boy’s lost lifetime earnings.
Finally came these questions: “Did Hyundai Motor America act with ‘actual malice’ such as to warrant punitive damages? Did Hyundai Motor Company act with ‘actual malice’ such as to warrant punitive damages?”
Jurors answered "yes" to both questions, and after further deliberations, awarded the families $240 million in punitive damages from the manufacturers.
During closing arguments Monday, attorneys for the Olson family emphasized the apparent lack of concern by Hyundai officials for investigating the defunct steering knuckles.
Had the manufacturer pursued the reports of cracks and breaks, Bohyer said, the company would have needed to replace two steering knuckles on the 5 million vehicles the company sold between 2000 and 2011. That would have cost Hyundai $2 billion.
“Did Hyundai investigate? No,” Bohyer said. “They’d just slap a new knuckle on and say all is good … except two boys are dead.”
The Hyundai attorney, Kevin Young, argued that the company sold millions of cars and the fact that 127 of those had steering knuckle problems doesn’t indicate a massive problem. Additionally, he argued that the vast majority of those warranty claims actually had a bearing problem.
Instead, Young returned to his contention that the Olson boys lit fireworks in the car. But no ignition source was found.
Still, Young argued, “there’s no doubt fireworks went off inside the car.”
The source of the ignition likely was swept up and discarded when the accident scene was cleaned, he said.
Jurors, however, found otherwise.