Products Liability Law Daily Harley-Davidson must answer for allegedly defective motorcycle tire
Monday, December 2, 2019

Harley-Davidson must answer for allegedly defective motorcycle tire

By Georgia D. Koutouzos, J.D.

Genuine issues of material fact exist regarding company’s role as a designer, manufacturer, and distributor of the tire.

Motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson was not entitled to summary judgment on negligence and strict liability claims by the widow of a man who had died after the rear tire of their motorcycle deflated as the couple were riding it, the federal court in Utah determined, noting that outstanding issues of fact remained with respect to the company’s role as designer and manufacturer of the deflated tire as well as whether the company was in the at-issue tire’s chain of distribution (Nielson v. Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Group, LLC, November 22, 2019, Nuffer, D.).

The rear tire of a 1995 Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic Electra Glide motorcycle deflated while a husband and wife were riding it, throwing them from the bike. The husband died at the scene of the accident and the wife sustained serious personal injuries. The at-issue tire—an MT90B16 Dunlop D402 tire model—was not the original tire sold with the motorcycle; rather, the markings on the tire indicated that it had been manufactured in January 2008 at Goodyear Dunlop’s tire plant located in Tonawanda, New York. The Dunlop tire model is co-branded with the Harley-Davidson name and trademarks, however, and the motorcycle manufacturer distributes but is not the exclusive distributor of that model.

The deceased man’s widow filed suit against Harley-Davidson and Goodyear Dunlop, asserting claims for: (1) negligence and gross negligence; (2) strict liability; and (3) breach of warranty. In her negligence and gross negligence claim, the widow alleged that Harley-Davidson knew that the Dunlop tire model had manufacturing defects and nevertheless continued to sell the tire with a known and visible defect. In addition, she claimed that the motorcycle maker allegedly failed to inspect the tire or to adequately warn consumers regarding recurring tire defects on tires branded by Harley-Davidson such as the at-issue tire.

In her strict liability claim, the widow maintained that the deflated tire was defective and dangerously designed/manufactured when it left Harley-Davidson’s possession and control, and that the company was involved in the chain of distribution for the tire because of the co-branding arrangement. Furthermore, she contended that the motorcycle manufacturer had continued to sell the Dunlop tire model after having learned that Goodyear Dunlop was producing numerous tires that fell outside of the supplier’s quality standards and specifications.

Harley-Davidson moved for summary judgment on all claims, arguing that there was no evidence that it had sold or distributed the allegedly defective tire. According to the motorcycle manufacturer, it does not design or manufacture tires and does not test tires, other than as part of a motorcycle system.

Bike maker’s role in tire’s design/manufacturing. Rejecting Harley-Davidson’s argument, the court found that there were genuine issues of material fact regarding the company’s role as designer and manufacturer of the deflated tire. It was undisputed that Harley-Davidson provides Goodyear Dunlop with performance specifications that encompass motorcycle handling in wet braking traction, rain groove response, high speed weave, low speed wobble, serpentine lateral traction, and blow-out bead retention for the tire and wheel assembly (i.e., how beads should remain seated on the wheel after tire deflation), the court observed.

In that regard, the record included some evidence and allowed reasonable inferences that Harley-Davidson had tested the Dunlop tire model, provided feedback to Goodyear Dunlop on the tire model’s performance, and approved the model’s design. The record also included evidence that the motorcycle maker approved and oversaw Goodyear Dunlop’s internal manufacturing quality control processes, approved only the Dunlop tire model as replacement tires for the Electra Glide motorcycle, and claimed Goodyear Dunlop’s manufacturing plants as its own.

Supply chain. The widow alleged that Harley-Davidson was in the chain of distribution for the at-issue tire because the company had participated in the branding of the tire model (Utah’s strict products liability doctrine imposes liability on manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, and any other party involved in a product’s chain of distribution). Harley-Davidson countered that the determination of a chain of distribution is purely a legal question and that the widow failed to cite a Utah case supporting her contention that a product containing a trademark is sufficient to establish the trademark holder as being part of the product’s chain of distribution.

That argument ignored the fact that manufacturers are in a product’s chain of distribution under Utah law, however, the court held, noting that because there were genuine issues of fact regarding Harley-Davidson’s role as a manufacturer of the at-issue tire, genuine issues of fact also remained as to whether the company was in the tire’s chain of distribution.

Apparent-manufacturer doctrine. Citing case law from other jurisdictions holding that, without more, the placing of a trademark on a product does not establish the trademark holder as an "apparent manufacturer" for the purposes of imposing liability for an alleged manufacturing defect, Harley-Davidson noted that there is no case law or statute discussing whether Utah law applies the apparent-manufacturer doctrine, and if so, how the doctrine is applied. Therefore, genuine issues of material fact existed regarding whether Harley-Davidson was "otherwise involved" in the at-issue tire’s chain of distribution as an apparent manufacturer of the tire. Accordingly, summary judgment favoring the motorcycle manufacturer on the negligence and strict liability claims was unwarranted, the court concluded.

Additionally, because it appeared that the portion of the widow’s strict liability claim alleging that Harley-Davidson’s liability as a distributor might turn on an unanswered question of Utah state law, the parties were invited to address possible certification of the question of Utah law’s application of the apparent-manufacturer doctrine to the Utah Supreme Court.

The case is No. 4:18-cv-00013-DN-PK.

Attorneys: Brian C. Stewart (Siegfried & Jensen) for Angela K. Nielson. Katherine E. Venti (Parsons Behle & Latimer) for Harley Davidson Motor Co. Group, LLC. David M. Stauss (Husch Blackwell LLP) for Goodyear Dunlop Tires North America and Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.

Companies: Harley Davidson Motor Co. Group, LLC; Goodyear Dunlop Tires North America; Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.

MainStory: TopStory SCLIssuesNews MotorVehiclesNews MotorEquipmentNews DesignManufacturingNews WarningsNews UtahNews

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