Nov. 10, 2022 – The Wisconsin Court of Appeals has ruled that a circuit court did not erroneously exercise its discretion by allowing the testimony of an engineer and spinal surgeon in a products liability case.
In Vanderventer v. Hyundai Motor America, 2020AP1052 (Oct. 26, 2022), the Court of Appeals District II also held that the circuit court properly allowed the plaintiff to introduce evidence of an alternate design for the product at issue.
In 2015, Edward Vanderventer was driving his 2013 Hyundai Elantra when he was rear-ended by another motorist, Kayla Schwartz. As a result of the collision, Vanderventer was left a paralyzed from the chest down.
Jeff M. Brown is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by
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Vanderventer and his wife Susan sued Hyundai Motor American (Hyundai) in Racine County Circuit Court.
The Vanderventers made claims of negligence and strict liability and alleged that the driver’s seat in the Hyundai Elantra was defective. Edward’s injuries were enhanced by the seat defect, the Vanderventers claimed.
Seat Design or Spinal Condition?
At trial, the Vanderventers argued that the force of the collision slammed Edward’s head into the seat’s headrest and seatback, where two prongs inside the seat rotated forward because a hollow horizontal tube that the prongs were attached to was buckled by the force of the collision.
The prongs, the Vanderventers claimed, formed a fulcrum at the level of Edward’s T6 vertebra, which led to his spine being severed.
Hyundai argued that Edward’s enhanced injuries were caused by Schwartz’s negligence and the fact that he suffered from diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH). DISH is a degenerative spinal condition that leaves sufferers with brittle bones.
At trial, the Vanderventers called two expert witnesses.
One expert, Kenneth Saczalski, Ph.D., is an engineer with degrees in applied mechanics, aerospace sciences, and engineering mechanics. He testified that the hollow horizontal tube was the “weak link” of the seat design.
The Vanderventers also called Dr. Shekar Kurpad as an expert. Kurpad, a neurosurgeon who conducts research into spinal cord injuries, operated on Edward after the collision.
Kurpad testified that Edward’s back was subjected to localized force during the crash. Kurpad reached that conclusion because Edward had multiple injuries at the level of his T6 vertebra.
Kurpad testified that based on his observations, the prongs inside the seat acted as a fulcrum that kept Edward’s spine in place at the level of the T6 vertebra while allowing the force of the collision to move the rest of the spine backward, severing it.
Additionally, Kurpad testified that Edward suffered from a mild case of DISH and that the condition did not cause Edward’s paralysis.
Alternative Seat Design
Additionally, the circuit court allowed the Vanderventers to offer evidence about an alternate driver’s seat design, known as the AD design, that Hyundai began using in its vehicles in 2017.
Saczalski testified that the AD design had a sturdier headrest design; he also testified that Edward would not have been paralyzed had he been sitting in an AD seat when the collision occurred.
Jury Awards $38 Million
The jury returned a verdict for the Vanderventers, and found that the driver’s seat was 1) defective and unreasonably dangerous and 2) negligently designed or tested, and that the defect and the negligence caused Edward’s injuries. The jury awarded the Vanderventers $38 million.
On appeal, Hyundai argued that the circuit court should not have allowed Saczalski or Kurpad to testify as to defect and causation.
Specifically, Hyundai argued that neither of the methodologies relied upon by the experts were reliable. Absent the experts’ testimony, Hyundai argued, there was insufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict.
Saczalski Testimony was Reliable
Writing for a three-judge panel, Judge Lisa Neubauer concluded that the circuit court’s admission of Saczalski’s testimony did not constitute an abuse of its discretion.
The circuit court cited Saczalski’s mathematical analysis, his training and experience, and his specialized knowledge, Neubauer pointed out.
Furthermore, she reasoned, the circuit court’s determination regarding Saczalski’s testimony met the standard for the admission of expert testimony under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993).
“The trial court could rationally conclude that the methodology revealed through Saczalski’s testimony, which included the application of scientific and engineering principles to observations from testing and inspection of physical evidence, is sufficiently reliable to pass muster under Daubert,” Judge Neubauer wrote.
Kurpad Testimony was Reliable
Similarly, Neubauer reasoned that the circuit court’s conclusion that the methodology behind Dr. Kurpad’s testimony was reliable was rational.
“Kurpad’s testimony made clear that he drew on his knowledge and experience, along with his surgical observations, review of Edward’s medical records, and information from Saczalski about the accident, to opine that the headrest prongs had caused Edward’s spinal fracture,” Neubauer wrote.
Alternate Design Testimony
Hyundai argued that the circuit court erred by allowing Saczalski’s testimony about the AD seat.
That testimony, Hyundai argued, was inadmissible under Wis. Stat. section 895.047(4), which prohibits the admission of evidence of subsequent remedial measures taken by a defendant to show that the product was defective.
But Judge Neubauer pointed out that under section 895.047(1), to prove that the product was defective a plaintiff must show that the foreseeable risk of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by adopting a reasonable alternative design.
“The Vanderventers presented evidence that the AD design shared material design features with the HD seat that Hyundai used before 2013 and that the addition of the second locking mechanism in the AD design did not make it a ‘technological breakthrough’ compared to its predecessors,” Judge Neubauer wrote.
“A reasonable juris could conclude that evidence of the AD design was admissible under Wis. Stat. section 895.047(4) because it tended to show that a reasonable alternative to the UD design could have been adopted in 2013 because of the AD design’s similarity to the HD design.”