POLSON — A Montana judge has reduced a punitive damages award from $240 million to $73 million in a lawsuit filed against Hyundai over a crash that killed two Missoula cousins in July 2011.
Jurors awarded actual damages of $1 million to each parent and $500,000 to each sibling of 19-year-old Trevor Olson and 14-year-old Tanner Olson after a trial in May.
Jurors also awarded $2.6 million for lost earnings to Trevor Olson’s estate, bringing the total for compensatory and actual damages to $8.1 million.
The cousins’ families alleged a broken steering knuckle in the Hyundai vehicle Trevor was driving caused the crash, while Hyundai said someone shot off some recently purchased fireworks in the vehicle causing the driver to swerve into the path of an oncoming car.
Jurors also awarded $240 million in punitive damages after finding that Hyundai knew about a manufacturing defect in the steering knuckle of its vehicles and did not issue a recall.
Under state law, judges must review damage awards. The state also limits punitive damages to the lesser of $10 million or 3 percent of a defendant’s net worth.
The estates of the victims asked District Judge Kim Christopher to uphold the punitive damages, while Hyundai Motor America sought to reduce them to $1 million.
In a ruling filed last week, Christopher found the state law that limits punitive damages to be unconstitutional. However, she said punitive damage awards must also be reasonable.
Case law indicates that a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages is more likely to be held up on appeal, Christopher wrote.
“…the Court also concludes in light of the degree of the Defendant’s reprehensibility, only the highest single-digit multiplier would be appropriate,” she wrote.
Multiplying the compensatory and actual damages of $8.1 million by nine — the highest single-digit number— Christopher ordered nearly $73 million in punitive damages.
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