Hyundai Motor Am. v. Hutton, 2015-CA-01013-SCT

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Mississippi
Citation328 So.3d 592
Parties HYUNDAI MOTOR AMERICA and Hyundai Motor Company v. Joyce D. HUTTON and Derek Bell
Docket NumberNO. 2015-CA-01013-SCT,2015-CA-01013-SCT
Decision Date16 September 2021

328 So.3d 592

HYUNDAI MOTOR AMERICA and Hyundai Motor Company
Joyce D. HUTTON and Derek Bell

NO. 2015-CA-01013-SCT

Supreme Court of Mississippi.

September 16, 2021





¶1. The instant case arises from a single-car accident involving a 2005 Santa Fe Hyundai, which had been rented by Joyce Hutton and was being driven by Derek Bell on U.S. Highway 61. It was reported to the police officer that the car drifted into the median, and Bell lost control. Both Bell and Hutton were injured. Hutton filed suit against Hyundai Motor America, Hyundai Motor Company, and Bell, and Bell filed a cross-claim against Hyundai. Hutton settled her injury claims against Bell prior to trial. Bell and Hutton proceeded against Hyundai. At trial, both alleged the car was defectively designed.

¶2. Plaintiffs’ theory was that the Hyundai was defectively designed due to an exposed, unprotected component of the anti-lock braking system (ABS). Plaintiffs asserted that an unseen and never-discovered object of unknown elements and composition struck a component part, dislodging an ABS tone ring temporarily , which caused the vehicle's computer to send erratic braking signals. The size, shape, and component elements of the phantom object are unknown. Plaintiffs further asserted that the alleged erratic signals in turn caused the ABS computer to assume that the front right wheel was not turning, which in turn caused braking to occur on the front left side. The alleged one-sided braking caused Bell to lose control before the vehicle overturned multiple times.

¶3. Hyundai countered that the cause of the accident was that Bell over-steered to the left lane and lost control of the vehicle while passing a Wonder Bread delivery truck. Hyundai offered that a phantom object did not cause the accident. The phantom object was never seen, found, or identified by Bell, Hutton, the state trooper who investigated the accident, eyewitnesses to the accident, Plaintiffs’ witnesses (experts or otherwise), or anyone else. Further, Hyundai argued that, assuming arguendo that Plaintiffs’ multiple-chain-reaction theory were possible, the trajectory of any object would have occurred within fifty milliseconds —a scientific, physical impossibility.

¶4. After a two-week trial, the jury returned a verdict for Plaintiffs—$193,000 for Hutton and $2 million1 for Bell. Hyundai appeals, claiming a number of errors by the trial court. This Court finds that reversible error was committed in the trial court. The verdict is reversed. Judgment is rendered in favor of Hyundai.

328 So.3d 596


¶5. On December 17, 2005, Bell and Hutton were traveling south on U.S. Highway 61 near Boyle, Mississippi. Bell was driving, and Hutton was seated in the front passenger seat of a 2005 Hyundai Santa Fe, rented by Hutton from Enterprise Rent-A-Car2 the previous day.

¶6. On the day of the accident, neither Bell nor Hutton reported to the investigating officer that they heard any noises or ran over any object. At trial, Plaintiffs offered that they suddenly heard a loud noise outside of the vehicle. At first in the trial, Bell testified that not only did he hear a loud noise but also that he applied the brakes before the car jerked left. Yet, on cross-examination, Bell testified that he did not apply the brakes until after the vehicle pulled left.3 All acknowledged that Bell lost control of the vehicle while passing a bread truck, drove onto the median, and flipped several times. Both Plaintiffs survived but sustained injuries.4

¶7. Initially, Hutton filed a complaint in Bolivar County Circuit Court against Bell, Hyundai Motor America, and Enterprise. Hutton initially claimed that Bell failed to exercise a proper degree of care by failing to maintain the vehicle on the roadway at all times. Hutton's claims against Enterprise included the failure to properly inspect, repair, and maintain the Hyundai Santa Fe before leasing it to Hutton. Hutton also pled a products-liability action against Hyundai for designing, manufacturing, and selling the Hyundai Santa Fe, claiming the vehicle was defective when it left the factory in an unreasonably dangerous condition. Hutton's complaint also alleged that the braking components of the vehicle were improperly, inadequately, negligently, and unsafely manufactured.

¶8. Bell answered, denying that his negligence caused the accident, and he pled a cross-claim, products-liability action against Hyundai and Enterprise—the same as Hutton. Enterprise also filed a cross-claim against Bell alleging that he was negligent. Before trial, Hutton, Bell, and Enterprise each settled their claims against one another. The case proceeded to trial with Hutton and Bell as co-Plaintiffs against Hyundai as the sole Defendant.

Pretrial Jury Venire Procedures

¶9. During the initial roll call of the jury panel, defense counsel recognized that several potential jurors were no-shows. Concerned with being unable to obtain a jury representative of a cross-section of the county at large, counsel requested the opportunity to question the clerk regarding those absences. Counsel, addressing the Court, stated,

We all received a jury panel report upon coming into the jury selection process this morning from Ms. Kelly or one of her deputy clerks. And in calling the roll earlier, we noticed quite a few absences. And then you, you know, I think properly excused some jurors. But we were noticing that there are a lot of gaps in the numbers themselves.

328 So.3d 597
But it will show -- and I am looking at mine and you will have yours. Well, you have got it there, I think, now. No number nine and then no number 12, no number 13, no number 14. No number 18. No number 19. And it will speak for itself. But there is no 25, no 28, no 31, 32 or 33 or 35 or 37 or 38. And just big gaps. And we were just curious if the first list, when it was drawn, was sequential, you know, one, two, three, four, five, right on through. And then there have been some people calling in begging off that have been excused before they ever got here. It is pretty obvious that is what happened because this list has got all these gaps in it, and we would like to ask the clerk what happened to them. Where did they go?

¶10. Judy Weatherspoon, deputy clerk for Bolivar County, was questioned and volunteered that she gave all counsel a jury-panel report the first morning of jury selection. Weatherspoon explained,

The reason it has gaps in it is, this is a revised list. I sent an excuse -- the excuses to the judge administrator the ones that have excuses, whether they are over the age of 65, it is going to cause a financial hardship, whatever excuse they have. I give them to Teresa Thigpen, and she excuse them or do not excuse them, and we go by that. We excuse them in the system. We make a new list. That is why you are seeing the gaps.

As far as the darkened in, if they come in later than expected and I have already printed the list out, I just go on and mark them, and I darken it out.

Weatherspoon further stated that on the back of the jury form was an affidavit that could be filled out if they wanted to be excused. The excuses would be passed on to the court administrator, and the affidavits would be retained by the clerk's office.

¶11. Teresa Thigpen, court administrator for Judge Walls, was also examined.

[Mr. Luckett] So the procedure is such that when the jury summonses go out, there is an opportunity for them to mail or bring in that affidavit on the back to claim a justifiable reason to be excused.

[Ms. Thigpen] Correct.

Q. And so they would get to you to deal with in the decision-making, and you turn it back to the clerk?

A. Yes, sir.

When questioned about the appearance of a two-to-one female-to-male ratio, Thigpen stated that she did not notice that trend.

¶12. Counsel also questioned Circuit Clerk Marilyn Kelly about the demographics of the jury pool not matching the county's demographics. Kelly stated that "[h]istorically ... more females register in our county and more females show up for court ...."

¶13. Following the examination, Hyundai requested a mistrial because the jury venire, from a gender standpoint, was not a proper representation demographically of Bolivar County. Plaintiffs argued that Hyundai had waived any objection by waiting until after the court started voir dire and received all objections.

¶14. Hyundai requested that the clerk's office gather various documents to explain the "jury winnowing-down process" and that it be allowed to analyze the documents and to present additional arguments the next day, if necessary.

¶15. Hyundai argued that Mississippi Code Section 13-5-23 requires the judge to make a finding of "undue or extreme physical or financial hardship" if a juror provides that as an excuse. Miss...

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