State high court reinstates $8M award against Hyundai

OLYMPIA — The state Supreme Court today reinstated an $8 million default judgment against Hyundai Motor Co. in a lawsuit over the backward collapse of a front seat in a 1997 crash that left a man paralyzed.

In a 7-2 ruling, the high court reversed the Court of Appeals, which had overturned a trial court’s finding for Jesse Magana of Vancouver.

The justices said the South Korean automaker deliberately withheld documentation from Magana’s lawyers for too long concerning other crashes in which front seats collapsed backward.

“Trial courts need not tolerate deliberate and willful discovery abuse,” wrote the majority, led by Justice Richard Sanders. “This result appropriately compensates the other party, punishes Hyundai, and hopefully educates and deters others so inclined.”

The court also ruled that Hyundai should pay Magana’s attorney’s fees and expenses.

Magana, 51, said he was relieved by the court’s decision and wished it hadn’t taken so many years to resolve the case.

“It’s been extremely frustrating, mainly because it would have been over with if they never lied in the first place,” he said.

“I can understand an accident. Things happen,” Magana said. But when it came out that Hyundai knew there was a problem with the seat back, “that’s what hurt, because it could have been prevented.”

One of Magana’s lawyers, Peter O’Neil, said Hyundai began strengthening the seat-reclining mechanism on its Accent model around 2000.

Hyundai officials did not immediately return phone and e-mail messages seeking comment today.

Magana was riding in the front passenger seat of a rented 1996 Accent when the driver swerved to avoid an oncoming truck and hit two trees. The force of the air bag apparently broke the seat’s reclining mechanism, and Magana, who had been wearing a seat belt, was thrown out the back of the hatchback.

He was left a paraplegic, while a woman in the back seat wound up with a broken leg when the seat crashed down onto her.

Magana sued Hyundai and asked the automaker to turn over documentation of reported seat-back failures in Accents or other models. Hyundai said no such evidence existed — a position it maintained until 2005, when under court order it finally began turning over documentation of nearly 50 seat-back complaints.
O’Neil said he didn’t know whether any other lawsuits against Hyundai over past claims were pending.

In 2002, a Clark County Superior Court jury found that Hyundai’s seat design was faulty and awarded Magana more than $8 million. That verdict was overturned in 2004 when an appellate panel found that Judge Barbara Johnson should have told jurors to disregard testimony from a witness.

Two years later, just before the case was to go to trial a second time, Johnson rebuked Hyundai for failing to disclose the similar cases. She entered a default judgment against Hyundai.

In 2007, the state Court of Appeals overruled Johnson again.

But the high court disagreed with the appellate court’s action, writing that the trial court “properly imposed a default judgment against Hyundai for its willful and deliberate failure to comply with discovery.”

In his dissent, Justice James Johnson said that the trial court failed to consider available lesser sanctions other than a default judgment.

“This was an abuse of discretion,” Johnson wrote, joined by Chief Justice Gerry Alexander.

Johnson said that the right to a jury trial “may be set aside as a sanction only in the most extreme circumstances” and that this case did not meet those requirements.

The case is Magana v. Hyundai Motor Am., docket number 80922-4.

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