Following an eight-day, in-person trial, a jury in New Mexico’s First Judicial District last week returned a complete defense verdict for Quinn Emanuel clients Hyundai Heavy Industries Co., Ltd.; Hyundai Construction Equipment Co., Ltd.; Hyundai Construction Equipment Americas, Inc.; and Cisco Equipment NM Sales, LLC. The plaintiffs—a construction foreman, his wife, and his three children—alleged that the purportedly defective design of an excavator that Hyundai manufactured, and Cisco offered for lease, was the cause of the foreman’s injuries during a January 2, 2015 workplace accident at an oil pipeline construction site near Carlsbad, New Mexico. At trial, plaintiffs sought $176 million in compensatory damages and $1.2 billion in punitive damages.
A critical issue at trial was the design of the Hyundai excavator’s safety lever system. The plaintiffs averred that the placement of the safety lever system—which either turns on or off the excavator’s hydraulics—in proximity to the excavator’s left-hand joystick presented an unreasonable risk of danger of “inadvertent operation of controls.” According to the plaintiffs, the foreman was injured when the excavator’s operator unintentionally bumped the excavator’s left-hand joystick while reaching for the safety lever system, causing the excavator to strike the foreman who was approaching the excavator on foot.
The firm employed a multi-faceted approach to defending against the plaintiffs’ claims. First, the firm established that the Hyundai excavator’s design—including its proximity to the left-hand joystick and its use of a “safety gate” to prevent ingress and egress out of the excavator while the hydraulics are active—is safe. Expert testimony from leaders in the excavator industry corroborated that the Hyundai design is not only safe, but is also the industry standard. To assist the jury in understanding the Hyundai excavator’s controls, Hyundai brought to the Court a partially-assembled cabin from an excavator that was of the same model used at the time of the accident. A portion of the trial was conducted in the Court’s basement with a defense expert demonstrating for the jury the Hyundai excavator’s controls in the exemplar cabin.
Second, the firm established that the foreman’s injuries could not have been caused by inadvertent operation of the left-hand joystick. An accident reconstruction expert testified at trial that the plaintiffs’ theory was irreconcilable with the expert’s recreation of the accident in Odessa, Texas. A leading designer of excavators for a major heavy equipment manufacturer testified that inadvertent operation of the left-hand joystick, which would cause the excavator’s arm to move outwards, was inconsistent with eyewitness reports from the accident scene that the foreman was injured when the excavator’s boom and hammer attachment moved down, striking the foreman. Even the plaintiffs’ own witnesses, including two of the plaintiffs’ experts, agreed that inadvertent operation of the left-hand joystick would be “irrelevant” to the foreman’s injuries if the foreman was struck by the excavator’s boom and hammer moving downwards. And, a leading biomechanical engineer, who also serves as an emergency room physician at a renowned research hospital, testified that the foreman’s injuries could only have been caused by a downward force and therefore could not have resulted from inadvertent operation of the left-hand joystick.
After a little more than an hour of deliberations, the jury returned a complete defense verdict, determining that the Hyundai design is safe and that neither Hyundai nor Cisco was, in any way, negligent. The in-person jury trial, which featured live testimony in a converted courtroom, the wearing of masks at all times, and socially-distanced seating, is among the first in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.