Products Liability Law Daily Dismissal of brake design defect claim reversed, putting Harley-Davidson and dealership back on defense
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Friday, May 31, 2019

Dismissal of brake design defect claim reversed, putting Harley-Davidson and dealership back on defense

By Leah S. Poniatowski, J.D.

Expert for motorcycle owner based his report on facts and drew upon his training and education to form his opinion. Therefore, the New Jersey appellate panel reversed the trial court’s finding that his report was an inadmissible net opinion.

A New Jersey state trial court erred in dismissing a design defect and negligence-based products liability lawsuit filed against Harley-Davidson Motor Company Group, LLC after a motorcycle owner was injured in an accident in which the motorcycle’s brakes allegedly failed to function, a state appellate panel ruled in an unpublished opinion. The appellate court found that the owner’s expert’s report was not a conclusory "net opinion," but rather was supported by factual evidence, and the expert had explained why he opined that a failure of the front brake master cylinder caused the crash. Furthermore, the appellate court was satisfied that there was sufficient circumstantial evidence for a jury to infer that the front brake failure would not have occurred absent a defect (Magdon v. Harley-Davidson USA, May 30, 2019, per curiam).

The motorcycle owner had purchased the bike new in 2010 from Liberty Harley-Davidson, a dealership, and had the bike serviced at the dealership approximately every two years. According to the owner’s manual, it was instructed that the brake system be flushed and the brake fluid replaced every two years, but Liberty did not perform any brake service during any of the recorded service appointments. Additionally, the owner did not add any after-market parts or otherwise change the bike. However, in 2014, during a ride on a familiar highway, the owner stated that he had applied the brakes when riding through a curve but there was no pressure on the front brake, causing him to lose control. After hitting a ditch, the motorcycle landed on the owner, causing him severe injuries. The bike was deemed "totaled" and sold at an auction.

The owner filed a products liability lawsuit against Harley-Davidson and the dealership, alleging the brakes were defectively designed and the companies were negligent. The expert hired to offer the defect opinion reviewed the accident report, deposition testimony, the owner’s manual, other documents from Harley-Davidson, and photographs and other data collected from the scene. His final report concluded that there was a brake system defect which caused the accident. In the report, he opined that the front brake master cylinder contained a defect and that contaminated brake fluid contributed to the brake failure, which arose from the improper service provided by the dealer.

Trial court. The lower court agreed with Harley-Davidson and Liberty’s assertion that the report was not supported by facts and, thus, was a "net opinion." The court determined that there was "no analysis," "no testing," and no "why's or where[fore's]" for the report to rise above being more than speculative. Accordingly, Harley-Davidson and Liberty’s motion to dismiss was granted. The owner filed the present appeal.

Admissible opinion. The appellate panel disagreed with the lower court, holding that the report was not merely conclusory. The panel considered the report, observing that the expert’s opinions were based on factual evidence of the photographs from the scene and the owner’s testimony. The panel also noted that the expert provided a "why" in his report when he opined that the front brake master cylinder failed when Liberty either failed to discover contaminated brake fluid or by introducing contaminated brake fluid during the last maintenance visit. Because the expert based his opinion on facts in the record and drew on his training, experience, and education, it was not a "net opinion" inadmissible under New Jersey law. The panel clarified that the opinion was subject to cross-examination at trial and subject to jury review. Further, the panel held that there was sufficient circumstantial evidence to support the owner’s assertion that but-for a design defect, the brakes should not have failed on the motorcycle. Accordingly, the lower court’s dismissal was reversed and vacated, and the matter remanded to the lower court.

The case is No. A-5527-17T4.

Attorneys: Paul F. O'Reilly (James Vasquez, PC) for Louis A. Magdon. Travis E. Romero-Boeck (Quarles & Brady, LLP) for Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Group, LLC. Michael Keith Willison (Dickie McCamey & Chilcote PC) for Liberty Harley-Davidson.

Companies: Harley-Davidson U.S.A; Harley-Davidson Motor Co., Inc.; Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Group, LLC; Liberty Harley-Davidson

MainStory: TopStory ExpertEvidenceNews MotorVehiclesNews NewJerseyNews

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