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Supreme Court of Virginia Recently Overturned $14 Million Car Crash Verdict

Author: Portner & Shure

16-year-old Gage Duncan of Radford, Virginia was involved in a single-car accident when his 2008 Hyundai Tiburon slammed into a tree in 2010. The airbag in the car failed to deploy in the crash and Duncan suffered a severe head injury landing him in a coma for one week. The injury to his head was so severe that he had to relearn how to walk and talk. Duncan’s expert witness in the case testified that a design defect by Hyundai prevented the airbag from deploying. This testimony was enough to convince a second jury to award $14.14 million to Duncan. However, a six-justice majority for the Supreme Court of Virginia overturned the verdict because the expert witness for the victim did not meet the “reliability standard” when he testified about an alleged defect in the car.

The expert witness for Duncan, a mechanical engineer, testified that the airbag sensor was not located at the optimal location for making sure the airbag deploys in high-impact collisions. The expert even suggested during cross-examination that the sensor should have been located on the car’s “B-pillar” instead of under the driver’s seat. The Court held that the expert’s opinion lacked any evidence to support it, as he admitted to not conducting any of his own testing or analysis to support his supposition. Justice McClanahan for the majority wrote, “Because Mahon’s opinion supplied the only support for the Duncans’ claim that the vehicle was unreasonably dangerous, the inadmissibility of Mahon’s opinion as a matter of law is fatal to the Duncans’ claim and entitles Hyundai to judgment as a matter of law.”

This ruling by Virginia’s Supreme Court hints at a possible change in Virginia’s standard for experts. It would appear that the Virginia standard might be moving closer to matching the “Daubert” standard employed by federal courts. There are five factors that make up the “Daubert” standard, which is used by a trial judge to make an assessment of whether an expert’s scientific testimony is “based on reasoning or methodology that is scientifically valid.”The five factors include: “(1) whether the theory or technique in question can be and has been tested; (2) whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication; (3) its known or potential error rate; (4)the existence and maintenance of standards controlling its operation; and (5) whether it has attracted widespread acceptance within a relevant scientific community.”
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