Trials & Litigation

Did firecracker or defect cause Hyundai crash? 'Bombshell' evidence is suddenly noticed during trial


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Lawyers for plaintiffs suing Hyundai complained to a Montana judge last Wednesday that the automaker “clearly tried to drop a bombshell” when its expert noticed an object in a photograph that had apparently been overlooked for 34 months.

The families of two teenage cousins who died in a crash of a Hyundai Tiburon claim a defective steering knuckle caused the accident, while Hyundai claims the cause was a firecracker that exploded in the car. The defense expert’s sudden discovery ignited “fireworks of a judicial nature,” the Missoulian reports.

The trial was in its second week when Hyundai expert witness Skip Palenik said he noticed something new when he examined photographs of crash debris in preparation for his trial testimony, the Missoulian says. Palenik told the judge outside the presence of jurors that he noticed what appeared to be an orange lighter outside the crashed Hyundai.

The discovery supports Palenik’s opinion that a firecracker had exploded inside the Hyundai, causing the July 2011 head-on collision that killed cousins Trevor and Tanner Olson and a passenger in the other car, the Missoulian says. Palenik, who works for the Illinois lab Microtrace, testified that microscopic examination identified evidence taken from the vehicle as pieces of red paper from an exploded “Mighty Cracker” firecracker. Until Palenik’s observation, there was no evidence there was anything in the vehicle to ignite a firecracker.

Missoula lawyer Mark Williams complained to Judge Kim Christopher that “Hyundai clearly tried to drop a bombshell that would have caused a mistrial.” Williams said there was no way of knowing if the object was a lighter and whether it came from the Hyundai.

Christopher said she “would not preclude the defendants arguing what [the orange object] is, but I’m not going to allow this witness to say it looks like a lighter and might be a lighter. It’s a lot bigger than hairs” that Palenik usually studies under microscopes, the judge said.

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