Products Liability Law Daily Injured motorcyclist’s evidence carries defect and warning claims against Suzuki to trial
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Friday, April 3, 2020

Injured motorcyclist’s evidence carries defect and warning claims against Suzuki to trial

By Leah S. Poniatowski, J.D.

Material fact disputes existed as to manufacture and design of brake cylinder components and manufacturer’s duty to warn of danger in months before formal recall.

A multi-count products liability lawsuit filed by a motorcyclist seriously injured when his brakes suddenly failed largely survived the manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment because there was sufficient evidence to create triable issues, a federal district court in Kentucky ruled, denying in part and granting in part the manufacturer’s motion (Schall v. Suzuki Motor of America, Inc., March 31, 2020, McKinley, Jr., J.).

The owner of a 2007 Suzuki GSX-R600 motorcycle was paralyzed from the sternum down after an accident allegedly caused by a brake failure. According to the owner, in mid-July 2013, he was riding on a two-lane country road at night. When navigating a curve in the road, the brakes did not respond, which was the first time he had experienced any problem with the brakes. When he applied the back brake, he felt the rear tire lock up and decided to navigate towards a cornfield on the other side of the road. Unfortunately, the owner was unaware that there was a large drainage ditch lining the road before the cornfield. He struck the ditch and crashed.

Six months later, he was notified by Suzuki Motor of America, Inc. (SMAI), the importer of the motorcycle, that GSX-R front brakes were defective, and a recall was issued beginning in November 2013 for motorcycles manufactured between 2004 through 2013. SMAI issued a notice to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), which indicated that riders may experience spongy brakes that extend the motorcycle’s stopping distance and, thus, increase the risk of a crash. The owner filed a multi-count products liability lawsuit against SMAI, Suzuki Motor Corp. (SMC), the manufacturer of the motorcycle, and Nissin Kogyo Co., Ltd., the manufacturer of the brake master cylinder, (collectively, the manufacturers). The manufacturers filed the present motion to dismiss on summary judgment.

Brake system. The brake system of the GSX-R motorcycle used hydraulic brake pressure, generated from application of the brake lever acting on brake fluid. The brake master cylinder was made up of a piston, a piston spring, and a reservoir port. According to SMC’s specifications and instructions, the reservoir port was located horizontally of the cylinder in order to accommodate other parts. The piston was made of a zinc alloy with a protective coating applied. The piston spring was made of steel.

In its notice to NHTSA, SMAI explained that if the brake fluid has not been changed, the fluid can deteriorate and absorb moisture. Additionally, the brake piston in the cylinder of some motorcycles may not have a uniform surface treatment, which in combination can lead to corrosion of the piston and the generation of gas not purged from the cylinder, due to its location. This gas can affect braking power because it reduces the proper fluid pressure transmission to the front brake.

Strict liability. The owner asserted strict liability-based claims for manufacturing defect and design defect based on the alleged uneven application of the coating to the surface of the piston in the brake master cylinder. The court found that there was ample circumstantial evidence that the surface coating on the owner’s motorcycle was inadequate, especially as the owner’s experts testified that there was hydrogen gas in the master cylinder and clear corrosion of the piston. The court was also persuaded that the inadequate coating created the unreasonably dangerous condition of hydrogen gas formation.

With respect to design defect, the owner alleged that the zinc piston and the port location were unreasonably dangerous. The manufacturers relied on a statutory presumption that the master cylinder was not defective, but the court found that the owner presented sufficient evidence to rebut that presumption and create a genuine issue of material fact as to the safety of the materials chosen to manufacture the cylinder. The court also determined that the owner demonstrated a practicable and safer alternative design. The court was also persuaded that the owner presented sufficient evidence to support his assertion that the design of the horizontal port was unreasonably dangerous. Therefore, the owner presented material facts in dispute on the strict liability defects.

Negligence. The owner contended that the manufacturers were negligent and grossly negligent in the design, manufacture, testing, marketing, advertising, distribution, promotion, and selling of the motorcycle at issue. The court explained that the owner’s negligent design and manufacture claims were premised on the same allegations as his strict liability claims and, thus, the court’s analysis for those claims applied to the negligence-based claims as well. Accordingly, the court determined that the owner presented sufficient evidence to support his negligence-based manufacturing and design defect claims.

Causation. The court explained the owner and the manufacturers chose to reserve the discussion of causation, but it would address the issue in kind. The crux of the manufacturer’s argument was that the owner did not present reliable expert testimony as to causation. However, the court disagreed, holding that the owner presented expert testimony as to the corrosion and presence of hydrogen gas, and circumstantial evidence can be used to establish causation. With respect to the issue of the cause of the accident, the court stated that there was sufficient evidence in the owner’s favor to “tilt[] the balance from possibility to probability.” Finally, the owner’s experience with the brakes suddenly not working was not mutually exclusive from the recall’s description of the brake failure per the testimony of his experts. Therefore, the manufacturer’s motions for summary judgment with respect to the strict liability and negligent manufacturing and design defects claims were denied.

Negligent failure-to-warn. The court explained that based on case law, Kentucky recognizes a post-sale duty to warn claim for products that were defective when sold, although there was no private right of action to enforce a manufacturer’s reporting requirement to NHTSA. The court found that the owner presented sufficient evidence that the manufacturers knew, or had a reason to know, that the motorcycle was likely to be dangerous. Specifically, the manufacturers knew by April 2013 that gas was accumulating in the cylinder, and they also knew that five to ten percent of the pistons did not meet their specifications. There was also an internal document discussing the merits and risks of implementing a recall and their choice not to do so, months before the actual recall. Because there were material facts in dispute, the manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment on the negligent failure to warn claim was denied.

Negligent misrepresentation. The court explained that on a negligent misrepresentation claim, an injured party must identify the false or misleading information provided by the specific defendant, in addition to demonstrating several other factors. The court found that the owner did not present evidence that he was a reasonably foreseeable recipient of the information, that he justifiably relied on the information, that he exercised reasonable care in relying on the information, and that those statements were the proximate cause of his damage. Therefore, the manufacturers were granted summary judgment on the negligent misrepresentation claim

The case is No. 4:14-CV-00074-JHM.

Attorneys: Tyler S. Thompson (Dolt, Thompson, Shepherd & Conway PSC) and Christopher L. Rhoads (Rhoads & Rhoads, PSC) for Derek Schall. Casey Wood Hensley (Frost Brown Todd LLC) for Suzuki Motor of America, Inc. and Suzuki Motor Corp. Christopher R. Cashen (Dinsmore & Shohl LLP) for Nissin Kogyo Co., Ltd.

Companies: Suzuki Motor of America, Inc.; Suzuki Motor Corp.; Nissin Kogyo Co., Ltd

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews WarningsNews CausationNews MotorVehiclesNews MotorEquipmentNews KentuckyNews

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