After a Racine County jury returned a $38.1 million verdict against Hyundai Motors Co. last year, no one was surprised the Korean automaker planned to appeal.
But no one expected that, nearly a year later, that appeal would remain on hold because of a missing person — the court reporter responsible for providing a transcript of the trial.
“Of all the things you consider that might go wrong, the one you never thought about was the disappearance of the court reporter before certifying the transcript,” said Timothy Trecek, the Habush, Habush & Rottier attorney who represented the plaintiff in the trial that ended in February 2020.
Court records show that right after the trial, Brande Browne agreed to have transcripts to Hyundai’s lawyers by March. By June, despite Hyundai’s payment of nearly $10,000 to expedite the matter, the transcript still hadn’t been produced. Browne, nor her boss at the Racine Court Reporter’s office, were answering emails from Hyundai’s attorneys from Quarles & Brady.
Finally, in mid-June, Browne, 44, responded, saying that myriad personal and professional events had set her back, but she was working as fast she could to complete the transcript of the 18-day trial. On June 30, she indicated in a formal document called the Statement of Transcript, that she would have the transcript by July 31.
When August came but the transcript did not, Hyundai’s lawyer again emailed Browne repeatedly but never heard back.
The Court of Appeals then demanded Browne file the transcript, then extended the deadline twice, before fining her $1,075 in November.
In December, trial judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz issued a warrant for Browne’s arrest after she failed to appear in court to explain why she hadn’t produced the transcript. He has set another hearing in the case for Thursday.
Police have been to her house, but she was not found. Calls by a reporter to various numbers listed for her were either unanswered or the numbers were no longer in service. Lawyers in the case said they have heard nothing about where Browne might be.
Driver’s seat at issue
In July 2015, Edward Vanderventer, 67, of Racine, was stopped, waiting to turn in his 2013 Hyundai Elantra at an intersection in Caledonia when he was rear-ended by a 17-year-driver.
He sued both the other driver and Hyundai, alleging that, while the other driver caused the accident, Vanderventer’s serious back injuries — that left him a paraplegic — were caused by a defective seat that collapsed into his spine.
Three passengers in his car were not seriously injured, his attorney said.
The jury found 86% of Vanderventer’s injuries were attributable to the seat design, meaning Hyundai would be on the hook for $32.7 million of the total judgment.
On appeal, Hyundai plans to raise numerous issues about how the trial was conducted but can’t without a reliable, accurate record of the proceedings. It also noted that, despite specifically requesting Browne prioritize the final transcript of closing arguments, it never received them while Browne did provide transcripts of the plaintiff’s closing and rebuttal arguments in April, a fact Hyundai lawyers say they were not made aware of until recently.
A court reporter, or stenographer, doesn’t just type what’s being said in court. They write the rapid speech in a type of code they must later translate into a readable transcript.
Trecek, Vanderventer’s attorney, said Browne was dependable throughout the trial, providing rough daily drafts to both sides. He said if she or her machine — from which another stenographer might be able to produce the transcript — are never found, those drafts of daily transcripts might allow both sides, and the judge, to assemble an agreed-on final transcript for the appeal. The parties already paid $7.50 a page for those rough transcripts at the end of each day’s trial, according to records.
But in a court pleading, Hyundai attorney Patrick Nolan indicated that could be a far more difficult task.
“Here, the threshold and urgent question is whether the court reporter will provide a certified and accurate transcript of the trial proceedings. If the court reporter fails to do so promptly, the Hyundai Defendants are fully prepared to explain why the current record deprives them of their right to an appeal, to brief the deficiencies with the rough transcript, and to highlight why reconstruction would be impossible,” the motion reads.
“But, right now, Plaintiffs’ assertions that the rough transcript is good enough or that reconstruction can be accomplished are premature.”
If a reliable transcript can’t be produced, it could mean Hyundai would be entitled to a whole new trial.