Magana v. Hyundai Motor America
October 15, 1997, Jesse Magana was a front seat passenger in a 1996 Hyundai Accent, a two-door hatch back. At the crest of a hill, the driver saw a truck which appeared to be in his lane of travel. The driver swerved to avoid the truck causing the car to veer off the road and hit several trees. There was both a frontal and rear impact during the course of the event. At the time of the incident Jesse was a belted. The air bag went off, the seat back broke and Jesse was thrown through the rear window and onto the ground and was rendered a paraplegic.
The case was filed in Clark Co. Superior Court in 2000. During the course of litigation Magana’s counsel asked Hyundai to respond to written questions, (interrogatories), under oath, concerning lawsuits or claims, involving seat back failure. Hyundai responded with a denial that there were such incidents. Based upon this sworn information the matter went to trial and, even without other similar incidents to prove the case, the jury found that the seat back was defective. Jesse was awarded 8.1 million dollars in monetary damages.
Hyundai appealed the decision claiming a procedural error during the trial. The appellate court agreed, remanding the case back to Clark Co. to be retried. During the several months that the matter was on appeal, Jesse’s lawyers learned about the possible existence of other similar claims. When confronted Hyundai admitted to two prior claims but said that was all there were. Magana’s lawyers were unsure of Hyundai’s claim and sought a court order directing Hyundai to produce seat back failure claims. Just days before the upcoming retrial Hyundai finally produced boxes of documents involving seat failure claims. Jesse and his attorneys tried to contact the individuals involved in the prior incidents, only to find that the evidence was lost or destroyed.
Following a three day hearing involving testimony and exhibits the trial judge determined that the only effective remedy for interfering with Magana’s trial preparation was to enter a default verdict, reinstating the original award. The matter was then appealed a second time and then a third to the Washington State Supreme Court.
On November 25, 2009 the Supreme Court upheld the Trial Court’s directed verdict stating: “Trial courts need not tolerate deliberate and willful discovery abuse. Given the unique facts and circumstances of this case, we hold that the trial court appropriately diagnosed Hyundai’s willful efforts to frustrate and undermine truthful pretrial discovery efforts by striking its pleadings and rendering an $8,000,000 default judgment. This result appropriately compensates the other party, punishes Hyundai, and hopefully educates and deters others so inclined. We determine the trial court acted well within its discretion and reverse the Court of Appeals, which improvidently reversed the trial court.”
The following graphics were used in the Magana v. Hyundai trial. They illustrated how the defectively designed seat back collapsed upon airbag deployment, ejected Jesse Magana through the rear window of the vehicle and rendered him a paraplegic. Ultimately the jury agreed and entered a landmark verdict against the manufacturer.