Federal Court Denies Class Certification After Daubert Analysis

A  federal court late last month declined to certify three classes of consumers in litigation claiming that a defect in Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Inc.'s motorcycles caused severe wobbling and instability. See Steven C. Bruce, et al. v. Harley-Davidson Motor Co., Inc., et al., No. 2:09-cv-06588 (C.D. Cal.).

Plaintiffs were owners of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. According to plaintiffs, beginning in or before 2002, Harley-Davidson manufactured and sold touring motorcycles that had an alleged design defect in the form of an excessively flexible chassis. According to plaintiffs, the alleged defect caused “severe wobbling, weaving and/or instability,” especially occurring when riders made sweeping turns, and traveled at speeds above 55 miles per hour. Plaintiffs alleged that had they and other class members known of the defective nature of the vehicles, they would not have purchased or leased their motorcycles, or at least would have reduced the amount they were willing to pay for them. Hence, the classic alleged consumer fraud class action.

Plaintiffs moved for class certification, and relied on expert testimony to establish some of the Rule 23 elements.  Specifically, plaintiffs’ expert opined that a rider of a properly-designed
motorcycle should not experience a weave-mode instability event when riding within the
range of expected speeds.  He asserted that the class-purchased cycles shared a common design defect in the form of an “excessively flexible” chassis. The vehicles allegedly failed to “damp out,” or reduce, weave-mode oscillations to one half of their original amplitude within the time frame (a couple seconds) necessary to prevent them from becoming perceptible to the riders.

Defendants challenged the admissibility of that expert testimony under Daubert, contending that Rule 702 and Daubert apply with “full force” at the class certification stage. In support of this
position, Harley-Davidson relied primarily on Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011), and Am. Honda Motor Co. v. Allen, 600 F.3d 813, 815–16 (7th Cir. 2010) (per curiam).  In Dukes, the Supreme Court noted that it doubted that Daubert did not apply at the certification stage of class-action proceedings. 131 S. Ct. at 2554. In American Honda, which we commented on here, the Seventh Circuit held that where an expert’s report or testimony is critical to class certification, a district court must conclusively rule on any challenge to the expert’s qualifications or submissions prior to ruling on the class certification motion. 600 F.3d at 815–16. Earlier this month, the Seventh Circuit reaffirmed its holding in American Honda, ruling that it was error for a district court to decline to rule on a Daubert motion at the class certification stage. Messner v. Northshore Univ. Healthsystem, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 731, *17 (7th Cir. Jan. 13, 2012).

Plaintiffs argued that a full Daubert inquiry into the reliability of expert opinions is not required or appropriate at the class certification stage. They cited In In re Zurn Pex Plumbing Prods. Liability Litig., 644 F.3d 604, 613 (8th Cir. 2011),which we criticized here, and in which the Eighth Circuit reasoned that an “exhaustive and conclusive Daubert inquiry before the completion of merits discovery” is not necessary due to the “inherently preliminary nature of pretrial evidentiary and
class certification rulings.”  See also Behrend v. Comcast Corp., 655 F. 3d 182, 204 n. 13 (3d Cir. 2011) (district court need not turn class certification into a "mini-trial”).

Here the district court found the approach adopted by the Eighth Circuit to be the appropriate application of Daubert at the class certification stage. Thus, a “tailored” or “focused” inquiry, to assess whether the experts’ opinions, based on their areas of expertise and the reliability of their analysis of the available evidence, should be considered in deciding the issues relating to class certification, said the court. Especially where discovery has been bifurcated into a class phase and a merits phase, an expert’s analysis may have to later adapt, as gaps in the available
evidence are filled in by merits discovery. Here, the court had granted defendants’ request for bifurcated discovery. Accordingly, the expert opinions would be assessed in light of the evidence currently available.

Even with a less than full inquiry, the court found that the proposed expert testimony must be excluded. In reaching this conclusion, the court decided the expert had not adequately
explained the scientific basis for his proposed standard, which also had not been accepted in
the field of motorcycle dynamics. While the evidence supported that the damping out of weave-mode oscillations may be an important factor for motorcycle stability, it did not establish that the expert's "rule" requiring the reduction of weave-mode oscillations to one half of their original amplitude within two seconds was scientifically valid.

The expert formed his opinions exclusively for the purposes of litigation and had not published his "rule" for peer review, providing further support for his exclusion.

Additionally, the court believed that he had not sufficiently accounted for other potential causes of the instability. He failed to consider and test for other possible causes including the use of non-specified tires and leaky shocks. See, e.g., Clausen v. M/V NEW CARISSA, 339 F. 3d 1049, 1058
(9th Cir. 2003) (“The expert must provide reasons for rejecting alternative hypotheses using scientific methods and procedures and elimination of those hypotheses must be founded on more than ‘subjective beliefs or unsupported speculation.’”).

Thus, plaintiffs failed to establish that common questions of law and fact predominated over individual inquiries. Once the opinions were excluded, plaintiffs failed to show that they had the ability to use common evidence by which they could demonstrate the defect. The fact that the chassis was the same for each vehicle ignored the failure to show how common evidence would ultimately be admissible to prove that they shared a common defect, and also was unavailing because it overlooked the Supreme Court’s admonition that a “rigorous analysis” will often “entail some overlap with the merits of the plaintiff’s underlying claim.” Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2551.

Beverage Maker Not Liable for Alleged Failure to Warn

The maker of  a drink containing alcohol and caffeine was not liable to a woman allegedly injured when the driver of the motorcycle on which she was a passenger crashed, after the driver consumed the beverage.  See Cook v. MillerCoors LLC, No. 11-1488 (M.D. Fla., 10/28/11).

The operator of the motorcycle in the accident was killed, and plaintiff Cook, who was a passenger, was injured.  Prior to the crash, the driver allegedly had consumed several “Sparks”
alcoholic beverages containing caffeine and other stimulants, manufactured by defendant.

Cook argued that alcoholic beverages such as Sparks containing stimulants are “uniquely dangerous” because they appeal to younger drinkers and because the addition of caffeine enables one to drink more alcohol without feeling as intoxicated as one normally would. Thus, she alleged, consumers of these beverages are more likely to “engage in dangerous behavior such as driving.”  She asserted the driver did not appear impaired, even though toxicology reports from his autopsy revealed that his blood alcohol level was 0.10 at the time of the crash.

Defendant responded that the risks associated with operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol are well known; therefore, it could not be held responsible for the operator's choice to consume Sparks then illegally operate his motorcycle. The addition of other ingredients to the beverage did not lessen his responsibility to refrain from operating his motorcycle after having consumed the alcohol, and his actions, not the manufacture of Sparks,
proximately caused Cook’s injuries.  The crux of the defense motion to dismiss thus was that there is no cause of action against a manufacturer of alcoholic beverages for injuries resulting from their consumption because the effects of alcohol consumption are well known. With a response from plaintiff that the legion of such holdings in courts everywhere apply to “conventional” alcoholic beverages, not to an alcoholic beverage mixed with stimulants which allegedly suppress the consumer’s subjective awareness of alcohol’s well-known effects.

Regarding the failure to warn theory, a plaintiff must establish the existence of a duty. A manufacturer’s duty to warn arises when there is a need to inform consumers of dangers of which they are unaware.  The effects of alcohol and the need to not drink and drive are universally known.  While plaintiff argued about the unconventionality of this product, plaintiff did not and could not allege that the driver was unaware that he was drinking alcohol. His alleged subjective awareness of the speed or impact of those effects did not alter the legal reasoning of precedent that holds that there is no duty to warn because of the universal recognition of all potential dangers associated with alcohol. 

Plaintiff also failed to adequately allege how the product was unreasonably dangerous for the design defect claim. The effects of alcohol are universally and objectively well known, irrespective of the operator's alleged subjective awareness of them. The defectiveness of a design is determined based on an objective standard, not from the viewpoint of any specific user, said the court.

Moreover, plaintiff's theories failed as to proximate cause. Plaintiff alleged that the manufacturer's negligence caused the driver to become intoxicated to the point of impairment,
causing the crash and Cook’s injuries. In Florida, however, voluntary drinking of alcohol is the proximate cause of an injury from an intoxicated driver, rather than the manufacture or sale of those intoxicating beverages to that person.  This doomed the negligence claim.

Readers can readily see why the court was reluctant to make an exception to the rule for the "unconventional" beverage.  There are hundreds of alcohol-containing products that are not "conventional" in one way or another, by taste, ingredients, color, manufacturing process, advertising... To shift responsibility from the person who over-consumes one of these and then drives impaired is to send the absolutely wrong policy message.

Courts have typically recognized no duty on the maker, regardless of plaintiff's attempt to differentiate either themselves or the product. See, e.g., Malek v. Miller Brewing Co., 749 S.W.2d 521 (Tex. App. 1988) (finding no duty to warn despite claim that advertising led plaintiff to believe that “Lite” beer was less intoxicating than other beer); Pemberton v. Am. Distilled Spirits Co., 664 S.W.2d 690 (Tenn. 1984); Greif v. Anheuser-Busch Cos., Inc., 114 F. Supp. 2d 100 (D. Conn. 2000)(particular, alleged tolerance of an individual consumer); MaGuire v. Pabst Brewing Co., 387 N.W.2d 565 (Iowa 1986).


 

Failure to Warn Claim Survives- But Why?

Sometimes, manufacturers have to wonder, what good does a warning do if the courts won't require people to read and heed the warning given?

Harley Davidson is an iconic American product manufacturer. In 1903, William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson made available to the public the first production Harley-Davidson® motorcycle. The bike was built to be a racer, with a 3-1/8 inch bore and 3-1/2 inch stroke. The factory in which they worked was a 10 x 15-foot wooden shed with the words "Harley-Davidson Motor Company" crudely scrawled on the door.

William and Arthur would likely be scratching their heads over a recent ruling denying the company's summary judgment motion on a failure-to-warn claim in a suit filed after a motorcycle crash. Steven Morris v. Harley-Davidson Motor Co., et al., No. 3:09-cv-74 (M.D. Ga.).

Plaintiff alleged that the rear tire of his motorcycle failed, resulting in a crash that killed plaintiff’s wife and left plaintiff seriously injured. Plaintiff contended that the defendants (including the tire company) failed to provide an adequate warning regarding the dangers of overloading the motorcycle. With a full tank of gas weighing 31 pounds, the plaintiff's Ultra Classic’s Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) allowed for an additional 420 pounds of weight capacity for the rider, any passenger, cargo, and accessories. Plaintiff, who weighed 250 pounds, was with his wife, who weighed 204 pounds, riding as a rear passenger. Plaintiff was also pulling a trailer.

When plaintiff purchased the Ultra Classic, he was provided with an owner’s manual, which contained warnings and instructions regarding the Ultra Classic. Specifically, the Owner’s Manual warned against exceeding the GVWR; that exceeding these weight ratings can affect stability and handling, which could result in death or serious injury; explaining that GVWR is the sum of the weight of the motorcycle, accessories, and the maximum weight of the rider, passenger and cargo that can be safely carried.  It tells the owner that the GVWR is shown on the information plate located on the frame steering head.

The court found it significant that the weight of the trailer was not listed in the components of the GVWR, but that was because the Owner’s Manual also warned against pulling a trailer, ever: “Do not pull a trailer with a motorcycle. Pulling a trailer can cause tire overload, reduced braking efficiency and adversely affect stability and handling, which could result in death or serious injury.”  That is exactly what happened, according to plaintiff!

Plaintiff admitted he never read the Owner’s Manual. But in addition to the warnings in the Owner’s Manual, there were also warnings on the Ultra Classic. One warning was located inside the storage compartment on the back end of the Ultra Classic, over the rear wheel, and behind the passenger’s seat, and the Ultra Classic also contained an information plate on the steering head, which listed the Ultra Classic’s GVWR, recommended tire pressures, and other information.  Plaintiff testified that he did not see these warnings either.

Harley-Davidson contended that plaintiff’s failure to warn claim failed as a matter of law because he did not read the warnings in the Owner’s Manual or the warnings on the Ultra Classic.  The court construed  the claim as not relating to the substance of the warning, but the procedure, the method by which the information was communicated.  The court concluded that plaintiff contended that he never read the warnings because Harley-Davidson failed to communicate them adequately. Failure to read a warning does not bar recovery when the plaintiff is challenging the adequacy of the efforts of the manufacturer or seller to communicate the dangers of the product to the buyer or user, found the court.

Failure to communicate an adequate warning involves such procedural questions as location and presentation of the warning. The court found that it was a jury question whether or not the manufacturer was negligent in failing to place a warning in such position, color and size print or to use symbols that would adequately convey the information. Thus, based on the present record, said the court, a reasonable fact-finder could conclude that Harley-Davidson failed to place useful load information regarding the Ultra Classic where a user would likely see it.

But, even accepting the substance/procedure distinction, the only evidence the court focused on concerning the alleged inadequacy of the warnings was plaintiff's self-serving testimony. A plaintiff should not be able to create an issue of fact on the procedural aspects of the warning simply by saying, "I didn't see it, so it must have been inadequate." Where was the genuine issue of fact?  Where was the proof that the vehicle's Owner's Manual is not the right place to put a warning about safe operation of the vehicle.    Bottom line - there can be no genuine issue of fact when an admittedly adequate warning is placed in the Owner's Manual and the owner never opens the manual. Where is the genuine dispute about warnings right on the motorcycle itself? Where was the proof of where else the manufacturer was supposed to put a warning?