Hyundai Motor Company v. Vasquez

The Texas Supreme Court issued its opinion affirming a defense verdict for Hyundai Motor Company in a hotly contested appeal concerning the discretion of Texas trial judges to control questioning during the jury selection process. The appeal in Hyundai Motor Co. v. Vasquez arose out of a June 2001 verdict for Hyundai in a San Antonio court brought on behalf of the Vasquez family by Houston lawyer Mike Caddell. The Vasquez’s four-year-old daughter Amber was unbelted and seated in the front seat of a 1997 Hyundai Accent when her aunt, Valerie Suarez, struck another vehicle driven by Dianna Navarro in October 1997. The collision caused the Hyundai’s airbags to deploy, tragically killing the unrestrained Amber. A Bexar County jury found that Amber’s death was not caused by any defect in the Hyundai airbag, and apportioned fault for the death of the two drivers, Suarez and Navarro. Hyundai was represented at the trial by David Prichard and Kevin Young of the San Antonio firm of Prichard, Hawkins, McFarland & Young.

The Vasquez family appealed, claiming that they were unfairly prohibited from asking prospective jurors whether they would give decisive weight to the fact that Amber was unbelted and seated in the front seat at the time of the accident. A panel of the San Antonio Court of Appeals initially affirmed the verdict in an opinion written by Justice Paul Green. A year later, the court of appeals reconsidered the appeal en banc, and reversed itself and the trial court in another opinion written by Justice Green. The court of appeals determined that the Vasquez family was not given a fair opportunity to question jurors about potential bias during jury selection.

The Texas Supreme Court disagreed. Justice Jane Bland, sitting on the case by special appointment by Governor Perry, wrote the opinion of the court. The supreme court held that the questions sought to be asked by the plaintiffs’ attorney were properly refused by the trial court as commitment questions and that the plaintiffs failed to ask other questions about a possible bias that might have been proper. Since the trial court did not abuse her discretion in restricting the commitment questions, and the plaintiffs had waived any further complaint by not proposing any proper bias questions, the defense verdict was affirmed. Hyundai was represented in the appeal by David Kelter of Fort Worth.