Products Liability Law Daily Dismissal of products liability action against motorcycle maker, tire manufacturer, and helmet distributor upheld
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Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Dismissal of products liability action against motorcycle maker, tire manufacturer, and helmet distributor upheld

By David Yucht, J.D.

Absent expert testimony, motorcyclists could not prove that alleged defects in helmets enhanced their injuries or that their motorcycle and its rear tire were defective.

A federal appellate panel upheld the dismissal of a products liability action brought against a motorcycle manufacturer, a tire manufacturer, and a helmet distributor by a married couple who were both severely injured in a motorcycle accident resulting from a puncture to the rear tire of the motorcycle on which they were both traveling. According to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, the trial court correctly concluded that Indiana law requires expert testimony to be offered as to the helmet design because distinguishing expected injures from enhanced injuries is an inquiry beyond the understanding of lay jurors. Because no such expert evidence was offered, the case against the distributor was properly dismissed, the appellate panel said, upholding the lower court’s preclusion of the testimony of the couple’s expert under a Daubertanalysis and, consequently, upholding the dismissal of the claims against the motorcycle and tire manufacturers as well (Timm v. Goodyear Dunlop Tires North America, Ltd., August 6, 2019, Scudder, M.).

A married couple set off on a cross-country trip on their Harley-Davidson motorcycle. While crossing Nebraska, the couple was involved in an accident when their motorcycle’s rear tire was punctured and rapidly deflated, leading the driver to lose control of the motorcycle and crash into a concrete median barrier. Although both riders were wearing helmets, each sustained serious head injuries. They subsequently received notice that the helmets they were wearing at the time of the accident had been recalled. In its recall notice, the helmet distributor explained that its product failed to conform to federal standards and warned that riders "may not be adequately protected in the event of a crash." The motorcyclists brought product liability claims against various entities, including Harley-Davidson, the tire manufacturer, and the helmet distributor. They alleged that their injuries would have been less severe had their helmets complied with federal safety standards and that the helmet recall had been done negligently. They also alleged that defects in the motorcycle and rear tire caused the accident. The trial court granted the manufacturers’ motion to preclude proposed expert testimony and then entered summary judgment dismissing the couple’s case in its entirety [see Products Liability Law Daily’s February 16, 2018 analysis]. An appeal was filed.

Enhanced injury. The appellate court denied the appeal as to the helmet distributor. The couple sought to show that the allegedly defective helmet was a proximate cause of injuries through the "crashworthiness" doctrine, which "expands the proximate cause requirement to include enhanced injuries" caused by a defective product. Here, it was asserted that the allegedly defective product did not cause the initial accident but, rather, enhanced the severity of the accident victims’ injuries. The evidence demonstrated that the couple would have sustained severe head injuries regardless of the type of helmet they used. The trial court correctly concluded that Indiana law requires expert testimony in this case because distinguishing expected from enhanced injuries is an inquiry beyond the understanding of lay jurors. Because no such expert evidence had been offered, the case was properly dismissed. Also, summary judgment on the claim of negligent recall was upheld because there is no such claim under Indiana law.

Expert witnesses. The Seventh Circuit also upheld the lower court’s preclusion of the testimony of the couple’s expert and, consequently, the dismissal as to the motorcycle and tire manufacturers. The issue at the heart of the claim against the motorcycle and tire manufacturers required pinpointing exactly when the tire rubber unseated from the wheel rim, the appellate panel noted. To prove their contention that the tire’s unseating had occurred nearly instantly because of defects, the couple offered the expert testimony of two potential witnesses. The appellate court found no errors in the trial court’s preclusion of this testimony. The lower court properly held a Daubert hearing and probed the experts about the bases for their opinions, the methodology they employed, and the potential rate of error of their approaches, the panel found, adding that the Daubert factors had been applied to both experts’ testimony and opinions.

In his report and testimony, the first witness posited that the motorcycle accident was the result of the tire unseating from its rim. He further opined that the unseating had occurred because there was excess “ flash” in the edge of the tire that sat on the wheel rim and due to insufficient rubber reinforcing this area, which weakened the fit between the tire and the rim. He arrived at this conclusion by conducting a physical examination of the tire and wheel. When pressed about his methodology, however, he conceded that he could point to no empirical data or controlled experiments to support his opinions. He further acknowledged that he had not done any testing to validate his opinion, was unaware of any relevant tests conducted by others, and knew of no way others could objectively replicate his approach.

The second witness opined that the driver lost control of the motorcycle because the rear tire started to "hop." According to the witness, this hopping was the result of the tire unseating from the rim. The second witness failed to point to any test replicating the conditions under which the rubber beading would have come unseated or any testing to support his theory that bead unseating would cause a motorcycle to hop. He likewise failed to identify any scientific literature to support his opinion.

Both witnesses also opined that Harley-Davidson should have incorporated a tire pressure monitoring system into its motorcycle and that the accident would not have happened if the motorcycle came equipped with such a system. However, neither expert possessed qualifications to offer such testimony. Although the first witness was an expert on tire design, he acknowledged that he was not an expert in the design of tire pressure monitoring systems for motorcycles. The second witness had significant experience with motorcycles, but he also lacked familiarity with tire pressure monitoring systems. Without this expert testimony, the motorcyclists could not prove that a product defect was the proximate cause of their injuries.

The case is No. 18-2641.

Attorneys: John P. DeRose (DeRose and Associates, LLC) for Donald N. Timm. Edward S. Bott (Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale, PC) for Goodyear Dunlop Tires North America, Ltd.

Companies: Goodyear Dunlop Tires North America, Ltd.; Harley-Davidson, Inc.

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