This article originally appeared as a Letter to the Editor in the The Dallas Morning News on March 17, 2014:
The recent revelation that the General Motors Co. failed to fix, or warn the public about, a known ignition switch defect in some of its cars for a decade is the kind of thing that drives personal-injury lawyers apoplectic.
According to GM itself, this defect has been linked to 31 accidents and 12 deaths. An independent watchdog group, however, has found that 303 people have died after the airbags in two of the models that GM has now finally recalled failed to deploy.
The next time that you hear someone talking about “frivolous lawsuits” or limiting the amount of damages that a jury can award, you might want to ask yourself a few questions.
Do you think that GM performed any sort of cost-benefit analysis in determining how quickly to protect the public by recalling its dangerous vehicles? Do you think that GM’s decade-long delay in issuing a recall had anything to do with the expenses that would be incurred by acting quickly, compared with the amounts of the jury awards likely to be awarded if they waited?
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A family in Missoula, Montana sued Hyundai for injuries arising out of events that occurred on July 2, 2011. On that tragic day, a nineteen-year-old man and his cousin were driving on U.S. Highway 93 on their way to meet up with their family. The silver Hyundai that the cousins had been driving all of a sudden veered to the center of the road causing a head on collision with another vehicle.
The car accident resulted in three fatalities, namely the two cousins and a female passenger in the vehicle that they impacted. Later, it was discovered that the Hyundai had a defect in the steering knuckle, which is the auto part containing the spindle that attaches to the suspension gears.
After approximately ten hours of deliberations, the jury found Hyundai to be liable for the wrongful deaths arising out of this defect. The jury also found that Hyundai had acted with malice in not correcting the problem. Accordingly, Hyundai had punitive damages assessed against it as well as additional monetary penalties for the economic losses suffered. In determining a fair punitive damages award, the jury had been instructed to consider the value of the companies. The Hyundai Motor Company has a net worth of $46.7 billion and Hyundai Motor America has a net worth of $2.3 billion. The jury assigned $150 million in punitive damages to Hyundai Motor Company and an additional $90 million in punitive damages to Hyundai Motor America and $8 million for actual damages. Together the figures totaled a jury award of $248 million.