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On February 27, 2010, Virginia resident Zachary “Gage” Duncan was hanging out with his friends when he passed a car his friend was driving and sped off ahead of him. According to a report in the Roanoke Times, his car then veered off the side of the road, hit a snow bank, rolled downhill, hit a hay bale and then struck a tree. The passenger in the car was uninjured, but Zachary hit his head on the roof rail. His friends called 911.

Duncan suffered a traumatic brain injury and was in a coma for almost a week. He now needs the care of a long-term facility. His parents sued Hyundai Motor America, claiming the side air bags did not deploy as expected. A Pulaski Circuit Court jury recently awarded the family $14 million in damages, convinced by the plaintiffs’ attorney that the air bag sensors on Hyundai Tiburon models released between 2003 and 2008 were flawed.

Attorney Argued Air Bag Sensors Defective

This wasn’t an easy case for the jury to decide. It originally ended in a mistrial in September 2012, after jurors couldn’t come to an agreement. The retrial began June 17, 2013, during which the jury heard testimony for almost two weeks.

Duncan’s auto accident attorney stated that the plaintiff’s head hit the roof rail when his car slammed into the tree, but the air bag didn’t deploy as expected. If it had, he stated it would have prevented the brain injury. He described the air bag sensors as “old, antiquated technology,” and urged the jury to make the company take responsibility for putting inadequate safety components into the car. The Tiburon was discontinued in 2008.

Attorneys also presented additional evidence, including crash-test videos, testimony from engineering and medical experts, and more than 1,000 exhibits including Duncan’s car and the crash site. Still, the jury deliberated for nearly 10 hours before determining that Hyundai had made a car that was “unreasonably dangerous.”

The jury awarded the family $140,000 for medical expenses related to Duncan’s original hospital stay and rehabilitation. Because he will now have to live in a long-term, supervised facility, the jury awarded additional funds to cover those costs.

Air Bags Reduce Injuries

In October 2010, a study published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons found that side-impact airbags were associated with a 52.8 percent reduction in kidney injuries. The results were underscored with the fact that motor vehicle crashes are the most common cause of blunt force trauma to the kidney, accounting for 48-66 percent of all such injuries.

Airbags are designed primarily, however, to prevent injuries to the head and spine. The National High Traffic Safety Administration has reported that broadside crashes cause more brain injuries than other accidents, noting that if a car is hit on the side, a person is three times more likely to suffer a head injury than if it is hit in the front or the back. Furthermore, the injury would be more severe.

In March 2004, a study published in the Journal of Trauma Injury, Infection and Critical Care reported that occupants in vehicles equipped with head-protecting side airbags had a 75 percent lower risk of head injury after near side collisions. Of course, to provide this protection, the air bag had to deploy properly.

Hyundai argued that their system performed well in crash tests, and that though they regret Duncan’s injury, they made a “good, safe” car that exceeded federal safety standards.



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