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?