Mississippi Supreme Court orders 3rd trial in fatal car crash case

Published 10:49 am Saturday, March 13, 2021

The Mississippi Supreme Court is ordering a third trial in a wrongful death case, years after a jury told Hyundai Motor Company to pay millions of dollars to families of three people killed in a 1995 car crash.

In a ruling released Thursday, Chief Justice Michael Randolph wrote that a new trial is warranted because an attorney for the families had paid a self-described consultant who boasted about holding revivals and social events to try to gain favor with potential jurors, and that the attorney, Dennis Sweet, had later tried to conceal his connection to the man when Hyundai sought to overturn the judgment from the second trial.

“The total record before this Court evinces that a fair and impartial trial was not had,” Randolph wrote. “We find overwhelming evidence of actual impropriety, which destroys any confidence in the jury verdict. The facts developed in this record threaten the public’s confidence in our system of justice.”

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Justice Jim Kitchens issued a strongly worded dissent in which he quoted Sweet saying that depictions of the man he paid as a consultant, Carey Sparks, relied on “nonsensical” stereotypes about Black people. Both Sweet and Sparks are Black, and the wrongful death trial took place in 2014 in Coahoma County, which is majority-Black.

“It is far-fetched to imagine that any attorney would expect to influence potential jurors by hiring a preacher to hold revival meetings in advance of a trial, hoping that some of those summoned for jury duty would have attended the revival, that some of those attendees would end up on the jury, and that they would recognize the preacher sitting behind the plaintiffs and then decide to violate their oaths and award money to the plaintiffs,” Kitchens wrote.

The wrongful death case was filed against Hyundai Motor America and Hyundai Motor Company by the families of three people who were killed in a Hyundai Excel in 1995 when they were returning home to Clarksdale after working the night shift at a Tunica casino. Court records say the Excel was southbound on U.S. Highway 61 in the Mississippi Delta when it crossed into the wrong lane and was hit by a northbound Lincoln Continental. The Hyundai split apart.

In a 2008 trial, a jury awarded $1.5 million to each of the three families, for a total of $4.5 million. Hyundai appealed, and the Mississippi Supreme Court in 2011 ordered a new trial.

In the 2014 trial, another jury awarded $3.5 million to each of the three families, for a total of $10.5 million.

Randolph wrote Thursday that multiple people had heard Sparks boast of trying to influence potential jurors. An attorney not connected to the wrongful death case against Hyundai testified that Sparks had told her the verdict in that case should have been $21 million instead of $10.5 million but there were “uneducated” people on the jury, including a woman who did not know how to count.

Kitchens noted that Mississippi courts are required to ensure people chosen as jurors can read and write. He also wrote: “Sparks bragged and boasted about being a great jury manipulator, but no one took him seriously.”