Technical analysis and testimony by mechanical engineer Mark Erickson (formerly of Hayes + Associates in Corvallis, OR and now leading his own firm, Ericson Forensic http://www.ericksonforensic.com) played a role in a Montana jury’s award of $248 million in punitive damages to two families of young men killed in a fiery collision involving a 2005 Hyundai Tiburon.
On the 2011 Fourth of July weekend, Olson cousins Trevor, 19, and Tanner, 14, died when their car swerved into the path of an oncoming car. The subsequent head-on collision also killed a young mother riding with her husband and two small children in the second vehicle.
Plaintiffs’ counsel, John Bohyer of Bohyer, Erickson, Beaudetter & Tranel, P.C. and Mark Williams of Williams Law Firm, P.C., argued the collision was caused by the catastrophic failure of a steering knuckle in the Hyundai, resulting in Trevor losing control of the car. The defense response was that the cousins were distracted by fireworks they bought that day and were igniting inside the vehicle.
Noting the Hyundai’s open windows and sun roof as documented in the aftermath of the crash, defense counsel argued that the extension of the driver’s hand through the sun roof helped to corroborate the theory that the cousins were engaged in discharging fireworks and tossing them out through the windows and roof prior to the crash.
In his testimony, Erickson highlighted photographic evidence assembled during his inspection of the Hyundai to show that all the windows and the sunroof were closed when the crash occurred. Erickson established that damage to the sunroof’s structure demonstrated that the impact had caused the roof’s opening, rather than the deliberate operation of the roof’s mechanism by Trevor and Tanner.
“When the sunroof was lifted upward during the accident, it was in the fully-closed, forward position,” Erickson said. “There’s no way for this pin to come out of the track if the sunroof was moved backward. It had to be up near the front where there’s an opening now.”
In summary, Erickson’s analysis revealed that, with the windows and sun roof closed up to the point of impact, the cousins could not have been throwing lit fireworks out through them prior to the crash.
After the verdict against Hyundai was delivered on May 12, 2014, plaintiff’s counsel argued for an award of $160 million. The jury deliberated several hours over a two-day period before stipulating that Hyundai Motor Company must instead pay $150 million in damages to the Olsons, with another $90 million to be paid to the family by Hyundai Motor America.