Is this, the beginning of an avalanche of lawsuits for concussions from people wearing helmets?
State: Wisconsin: United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin
Plaintiff: Steven Scott Rogers, by his guardian, Tracy Rogers, Tracy Rogers, Samba Health Benefit Plan, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Wisconsin, and State of Wisconsin Department of Health Services
Defendant: K2 Sports, LLC, Lexington Insurance Company, and AIG Europe Limited
Plaintiff Claims: negligence, strict product liability, and breach of warranty
Holding: Mostly for the Plaintiff
This appears to be the first lawsuit over a ski helmet not protecting the skier from a brain injury. This is just a motion hearing. However, it provides some insight into the claims and defenses that will spring up in the future if people continue to believe that human-powered recreation helmets are going to protect against concussions and fatal head injuries.
Scott wore a K2 Phase 08 helmet while skiing with his stepson Coby at the Afton Alps Ski Area in Washington County, Minnesota, on New Year’s Eve 2015. Around 8:40 p.m., Scott and Coby skied down a beginner’s run called Nancy’s Nursery. Scott fell about halfway down the hill near some small mounds called “rollers.” Coby was in front of Scott and did not witness the fall. Another skier did witness the fall, but he was not able to recall any details about it, except that the fall did not seem unusual.
The fall left Scott unconscious and bleeding from his left ear. Scott was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where doctors conducted tests including a CT scan of Scott’s head. The accident caused brain hemorrhages and fractured Scott’s skull, left clavicle, and numerous ribs along Scott’s left side. As a result of permanent brain damage caused by the accident, Scott now lives at a VA hospital where he receives round-the-clock care.
The K2 helmet was certified as compliant with the standards of ASTM International, which is an organization that develops and [*4] publishes technical standards for a wide range of products.2 Compliance with ASTM standards is voluntary. The K2 helmet has three layers. The exterior layer is a hard-plastic shell. The shell is lined with an Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) energy-attenuating layer, which is supposed to absorb and dissipate shock from a blow to the head. The third layer is a comfort liner that can be adjusted to fit on the user’s head. After Scott’s accident, the lower left rear of the exterior shell was cracked. And, in the same area, the shock-absorbing EPS layer was flattened, and chunks of the EPS were missing.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
This was a motion’s decision. A Motion for summary judgment was filed by the defendant who was denied and motions to exclude witnesses, expert witness testimony, etc., which were denied in part and granted in part for both parties.
The main issue is, it is a lawsuit against the manufacturer of a human-powered recreation helmet manufacturer for a concussion.
The motions covered a broad range of topics; this discussion will look at the important points from an outdoor recreation perspective.
The court started by looking at the Wisconsin Product Liability statute.
Wisconsin product liability law is codified under Wisconsin Statute § 895.047.5 A product liability claim has five elements: (1) the product was defective; (2) the defect rendered the product unreasonably dangerous; (3) the defect existed when the product left the control of the manufacturer; (4) the product reached the consumer without substantial change; and (5) the defect caused the claimant’s damages.
The substantial change requirement is interesting. That reasoning provides a defense for the manufacturer if the retailer makes modifications to the helmet for a sale. At the same time, it is how all people in the chain of custody of a product are held liable for a product liability claim. Any of the people in the chain of custody, manufacture, distributor, retailers could have identified the defect and prevented the defective product from reaching the consumer.
Generally, product liability claims are one of three types: “design defects, manufacturing defects, and warning defects.”
Design defects are levied when the product is designed badly from the beginning. Although there are a lot of design defect claims, there are rarely judgments based on design because most manufacturers understand safety issues.
One area that does pop up in design defects is when a product is used differently from what it was originally designed. If the manufacturer leans about the misuse of the product, then the manufacturer may be held liable for injuries due to the misuse of the product.
Manufacturing defects are simply a failure of quality control. Although in this day, you would think, manufacturing defects would be rare, they occur constantly. A manufacturing defect is usually the reason for a recall of a product.
The final defect, warning defects, are the easiest and toughest at the same time. Making sure the information on how to use a product and any warnings on how not to use the product are critical. At the same time, it is difficult for manufacture to envision how their product could be used and all the risks from those different uses.
As an example, when I’m design manuals and warnings, I want the product. After I have examined it thoroughly and tried every possible way to use it improperly, I ask someone who has no understanding of the product to use it. A sixteen-year-old kid can do amazing things that no one ever envisioned with some products.
Many times, a product liability lawsuit will include a negligence claim. Here the court compared the issues of proving a product negligence claim and a product liability claim.
Plaintiffs also bring a claim for negligence. To sustain this claim, plaintiffs must prove (1) the existence of a duty of care on the part of the defendant, (2) a breach of that duty of care, (3) a causal connection between the defendant’s breach of the duty of care and the plaintiff’s injury, and (4) actual loss or damage resulting from the injury. In Wisconsin, a manufacturer’s duty of care includes the duty to safely design the product so it is fit for its intended purpose, and the duty to conduct adequate inspections and tests to determine the extent of defects.
The bold issue is another point you rarely know about. Your duty to design is just step one. Step two is you must test your product to make sure that it meets the intended purpose and the limits of your design. You design a product to do something. Once manufactured you must test the product initially and sometimes ongoing to make sure it still does what you say it will within the parameters you say it will operate.
This duty to test is increased if the duty arises from labeling or marketing. If you say the product contains X ounces of Sample or only breaks under loads greater than XX pounds you have to make sure each of your products meets that test.
The issue in ski helmets is not what the manufacturer says it can or cannot do. The issue is what the consumer believes the product will do. The consumer/plaintiff believes the ski helmet is designed to protect against a concussion, where, in reality; the design is just to slightly minimize the injury potential.
In this case, the plaintiff was claiming the helmet was defective. The plaintiff had to prove:
…a product is defective in design if the “foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the adoption of a reasonable alternative design by the manufacturer, and the omission of the alternative design renders the product not reasonably safe.”
The helmet manufacturer, K2 brought up the fact that the helmet met the ASTM standards for ski helmets. That standard required the helmet to “keep the user’s head from accelerating more than 300 g, meaning that the force of impact on the skull is equivalent to 300 times the force of gravity or less.” If you look at that standard, it is minimal.
However, the ASTM helmet is not a 100% defense to a claim. It only shifts the burden to the plaintiff to prove the helmet was defective, more so since all helmet standards are voluntary.
The ASTM standards may be relevant, but they are not dispositive. If the ASTM standards were adopted by federal or state law, then K2 would be entitled to a rebuttable presumption that the helmet was not defective. Wis. Stat. § 895.047(3)(c). But the ASTM standards are only voluntary. Compliance with voluntary standards at the time of manufacturing may be evidence that K2 behaved reasonably, in defense of plaintiffs’ negligence claim.
Voluntary standards, which most standards are identified as, are really only a sword and not a shield. If you don’t meet a standard, then it is proof you don’t care, and you had a cheap product. Failing to meet a standard is better in the plaintiff’s hands to proof you were bad, rather than in the defendant’s hands as a shield.
Under Wisconsin law, the court set forth the issues needed to prove a defect based on inadequate warnings on the product or provided to the consumer.
Under Wisconsin’s product liability statute, a product is defective because of inadequate instructions or warnings if “foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the provision of reasonable instructions or warnings by the manufacturer and the omission of the instructions or warnings renders the product not reasonably safe.” Wis. Stat. § 895.047(1)(a). Plaintiffs do not need to show that Scott actually read the instructions to prove causation. When a product is missing an adequate warning, the missing warning is a substantial factor in causing injury if a reasonable person would have heeded the warning and as a result avoided injury. There is a presumption that any missing instructions would have been read, and therefore a presumption of causation.
Here again, warnings are another weak shield for the defendant and a better sword for the plaintiff in litigation. Warnings show you tried to inform the consumer, or you told the consumer not to do something and they consumer did it anyway. The lack of a warning is a major sword to the plaintiff who can show the jury the lack of care and concern on the part of the manufacturer that should have and could have warned the consumer of the risk.
You can see the difference in the value of some arguments between the plaintiff and the defendant. If the defendant had the warning, it really does not matter except to hope you can argue it was written in a way that the consumer had to have seen it. If the manufacturer fails to have a warning, then the presumption is the consumer would have read the warning and not been hurt. But for the failure to have a warning, there would be no injury. If you are a manufacturer believing that since you have met the standards you are safe, you are soon to be renamed “Defendant.”
Even the voluntary part of the term “voluntary standard” can come back to haunt a manufacturer. If the manufacturer decides not to meet the standard, it is easy for the plaintiff’s attorney to argue the manufacturer did not meet the standard to save money, or because they did not care about their customers. Consequently, once a standard is created, voluntary or not, every manufacturer must meet the standard.
Worse, any standard then restricts research and development because of the fear of not meeting the standard and looking bad in court.
The motion did not look at the issues, we would like some clarification or the facts. What happened to cause the head injury that turned the plaintiff into a vegetable and more importantly, what did the plaintiff believe when they purchased the helmet.
So Now What?
The decision had a few interesting points. However, the greatest issue is the floodgates are now probably open for head injuries that occur to skiers and other recreationists while wearing a helmet. It will be interesting to see how this decision progresses through the courts and whether the issues of the amount of protections afforded versus the expectations of the consumer becomes an issue.
As the decision states. Ski helmets have limited ability to protect. The ASTM standard quoted in the decision requires the helmet to meet a simple test.
Under the ASTM standards, a helmet must keep the user’s head from accelerating more than 300 g, meaning that the force of impact on the skull is equivalent to 300 times the force of gravity or less.
Human-powered recreation helmets, ski, bike, rollerblading, scooters, etc., only protect against minor scalp injuries, nothing more. If the NFL cannot protect football players with helmets costing thousands of dollars why to you think the piece of plastic you paid $100 is going to protect you from a concussion.
More articles about helmets
A helmet manufacture understands the issues (Uvex, Mouthguards) http://rec-law.us/xpxX6n
A new idea that makes sense in helmets: the Bern Hard Hat http://rec-law.us/yPerOd
Do you really want to sell helmets this way? Does this article promote the industry? http://rec-law.us/NfoMTs
Great article on why helmet laws are stupid http://rec-law.us/zeOaNH
Great editorial questioning why we need laws to “protect” us from ourselves. http://rec-law.us/Ayswbo
Helmets do not increase risk of a neck injury when skiing http://rec-law.us/wPOUiM
Mixed emotions, but a lot of I told you so. http://rec-law.us/ysnWY2
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Jozewicz v. GGT Enterprises, LLC; 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 53937
Laura Jozewicz, Plaintiff, vs. GGT Enterprises, Llc; K2 Corporation; and Jarden Corporation, Defendants.
Case No. 2:09-cv-00215-CW
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF UTAH, CENTRAL DIVISION
2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 53937
June 2, 2010, Decided
June 2, 2010, Filed
CORE TERMS: public policy concern, preinjury, binding, alert, distributor, rental, consumer products, consumer, retailer, citation omitted, ski, risks of injury, skiing, sports, skis, serious injury, manufacturer, recreational, invalidated, safety standards, public policy, unreasonable risk, manufacture, notice, hazard, release agreement, unenforceable, collectively, inventory, rented
COUNSEL: [*1] For Laura Jozewicz, an individual, Plaintiff: Jordan P. Kendell, Robert G. Gilchrist, LEAD ATTORNEYS, EISENBERG & GILCHRIST, SALT LAKE CITY, UT.
For K2, a Delaware corporation, Defendant: Cobie W. Spevak, Gainer M. Waldbillig, LEAD ATTORNEYS, FORD & HUFF LC (SLC), SALT LAKE CITY, UT.
For Jarden, a Delaware corporation, Defendant: Gainer M. Waldbillig, LEAD ATTORNEY, Cobie W. Spevak, FORD & HUFF LC (SLC), SALT LAKE CITY, UT.
For GGT Enterprises, a Utah corporation, Defendant: Adam Strachan, LEAD ATTORNEY, STRACHAN STRACHAN & SIMON, LITIGATION, PARK CITY, UT.
JUDGES: Clark Waddoups, United States District Judge.
OPINION BY: Clark Waddoups
MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER
While skiing at Alta ski area, Plaintiff Laura Jozewicz (“Jozewicz”) fell and injured her neck. Jozewicz contends she fell because the binding on her skis unexpectedly released due to a product defect. Jozewicz rented the skis from Defendant GGT Enterprises, LLC (“GGT”). At the time of rental, a recall notice was in effect for the binding, but GGT did not remove the product from its rental inventory. Nevertheless, GGT seeks dismissal of Jozewicz’s negligence claim on the basis that she signed a release from liability at the time she rented [*2] the skis. For the reasons discussed below, the court denies GGT’s motion to dismiss.
On March 17, 2008, GGT rented skis to Jozewicz. On March 18, 2008, Jozewicz fell and injured her neck while skiing at Alta ski area. Jozewicz claims her fall occurred when the Marker MI Demo binding on her rental ski released unexpectedly. Jozewicz alleges that Defendants K2 Corporation and Jarden Corporation (collectively “K2/Jarden”) manufactured the ski binding. Prior to Jozewicz’s fall, K2/Jarden notified the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (“Commission”) regarding the binding, and the Commission subsequently issued a recall alert on May 30, 2007, due to “Unexpected Release, Fall Hazard.” 1 The recall alert stated that “[s]ki shops with these bindings in their rental inventory should not rent this equipment to consumers until it has been upgraded.” 2 The recall further stated that “[s]kiers can unitentionally displace a lever at the rear of the binding,” which “[i]f it is fully displaced, . . . can result in the unexpected release of the binding and possibly cause the user to fall.” 3
1 Recall Alert (May 30, 2007) (Docket No. 29, Ex. A).
Prior to renting her [*3] skis from GGT, Jozewicz signed an “Equipment Rental and Liability Release Agreement,” which states in relevant part:
I understand that the binding system cannot guarantee the user’s safety. In downhill skiing, the binding systems will not release at all times or under all circumstances where release may prevent injury or death, nor is it possible to predict every situation in which it will release. . . .
I understand that the sports of skiing, snowboarding, skiboarding, snowshoeing and other sports (collectively “RECREATIONAL SNOW SPORTS”) involve inherent risks of INJURY and DEATH. I voluntarily agree to expressly assume all risks of injury or death that may result from these RECREATIONAL SNOW SPORTS, or which relate in any way to the use of this equipment. . . .
I AGREE TO RELEASE AND HOLD HARMLESS the equipment rental facility, its employees, owner, affiliates, agents, officers, directors and the equipment manufacturers and distributors and their successors in interest (collectively “PROVIDERS”), from all liability for injury, death, property loss and damage which results from the equipment user’s participation in the RECREATIONAL SNOW SPORTS for which the equipment is provided, or [*4] which is related in any way to the use of this equipment, including all liability which results from the NEGLIGENCE of PROVIDERS, or any other person or cause.
I further agree to defend and indemnify PROVIDERS for any loss or damage, including any that results from claims or lawsuits for personal injury, death, and property loss and damage related in any way to the use of this equipment. 4
GGT claims the release agreement bars Jozewicz’s negligence claim.
4 Equipment Rental & Liability Release Agreement (Docket No. 13, Ex. 2) (emphasis in original).
I. STANDARD FOR REVIEW
Defendant GGT brings this motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). When considering a 12(b)(6) motion, “a court must accept as true all well-pleaded facts, as distinguished from conclusory allegations, and those facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” 5 The complaint must include “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” 6 “The court’s function on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is not to weigh potential evidence that the parties might present at trial, but to assess whether the plaintiff’s complaint alone is legally sufficient to state a claim [*5] for which relief may be granted.” 7 Consequently, a court does not look at evidence outside of a pleading to determine such motions. 8 If a court does rely “on material from outside the pleadings, the court converts the motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment.” 9 Because the court relies on material outside of the pleadings in this case, the court converts this motion into a motion for summary judgment.
5 Shero v. City of Grove, 510 F.3d 1196, 1200 (10th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted).
6 Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 167 L. Ed. 2d 929 (2007).
7 Peterson v. Grisham, 594 F.3d 723, 727 (10th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted).
8 Dobsen v. Anderson, No. 08-7018, 2008 U.S. App. LEXIS 22820, at *8-9 (10th Cir. Nov. 4, 2008).
9 Id. at *9 (quotations and citation omitted).
II. PREINJURY RELEASES
A. Limitations on Preinjury Releases
Without question, individuals “may contract away their rights to recover in tort for damages caused by the ordinary negligence of others.” 10 The Utah Supreme Court has recognized, however, “that preinjury releases are not unlimited in power and can be invalidated in certain circumstances,” including when (1) the release offends public policy, (2) the release is for activities [*6] that fit within the public interest exception, or (3) the release is unclear or ambiguous. 11 The second limitation is not at issue here because “preinjury releases for recreational activities,” such as skiing, “cannot be invalidated under the public interest exception.” 12 Likewise, the third limitation is not at issue because Jozewicz conceded during oral argument that the release is not unclear or ambiguous. Thus, the prevailing issue in this case is whether a public policy concern overwhelms the effect of the preinjury release that Jozewicz signed.
10 Pearce v. Utah Athletic Found., 2008 UT 13, P 14, 179 P.3d 760, 765 (citations omitted).
11 Id. (citations omitted).
12 Id. P 18.
B. Public Policy Considerations
Preinjury releases must be compatible with public policy to be enforceable. 13 Previously, the Utah Supreme Court has invalidated preinjury releases when they were contrary to public policy set forth in statutory provisions. The court has recognized that “[w]hen . . . the Legislature clearly articulates public policy, and the implications of that public policy are unmistakable, we have the duty to honor those expressions of policy in our rulings.” 14 Thus, in Hawkins v. Peart, the [*7] Utah Supreme Court held that public policy invalidated a preinjury release signed by a parent on behalf of a minor child. 15 The court looked to Utah statute and found that it “provides various checks on parental authority to ensure a child’s interests are protected.” 16 In particular, it found that when a child is injured, statutory law precludes a parent from settling a claim, unless the parent is appointed as conservator for the child. 17 Based on this clear legislative intent to protect a minor’s interest post injury, the court concluded that a preinjury release for a minor child likewise was unenforceable. 18
13 Id. P 15 (citing Rothstein v. Snowbird Corp., 2007 UT 96, P 7, 175 P.3d 560).
15 Hawkins v. Peart, 2001 UT 94, PP 12-13, 37 P.3d 1062.
16 Id. P 11.
17 Id. (citing Utah Code Ann. § 75-5-404 (1993)).
18 Id. PP 12-13.
As applicable to this case, Congress has expressed its concern about product defects that pose a significant risk of injury or death. In an effort to protect the public from such defects, it enacted the Consumer Product Safety Act (the “Act”). The stated purpose of the Act is:
(1) to protect the public against unreasonable [*8] risks of injury associated with consumer products; (2) to assist consumers in evaluating the comparative safety of consumer products; (3) to develop uniform safety standards for consumer products and to minimize conflicting State and local regulations; and (4) to promote research and investigation into the causes and prevention of product-related deaths, illnesses, and injuries. 19
Through this legislation, Congress has stated its intent to create laws that protect the public from unreasonable risk of harm from defective products and to provide a uniform regulatory scheme to promote product safety.
19 15 U.S.C. § 2051(b) (2010).
Under 15 U.S.C. § 2064(b), manufacturers, distributors, and retailers are required to notify the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission when they become aware a product (1) fails to comply with applicable safety standards, (2) fails to comply with other rules, regulations, standards, or bans under any acts enforced by the Commission, (3) “contains a defect which could create a substantial product hazard,” or (4) “creates unreasonable risk of serious injury or death.” 20 Recall alerts arising from such notices are specifically designed to prevent serious [*9] injuries. Under 15 U.S.C. § 2068, manufacturers and distributors are charged with honoring the recall alerts issued by the Commission. The law in effect at the time of Jozewicz’s accident stated:
It shall be unlawful for any person to —
(1) manufacture for sale, offer for sale, distribute in commerce, or import into the United States any consumer product which is not in conformity with an applicable consumer product safety standard under this chapter;
(2) manufacture for sale, offer for sale, distribute in commerce, or import into the United States any consumer product which has been declared a banned hazardous product by a rule under this chapter. 21
20 Id. § 2064(b).
21 Id. § 2068(a)(1)-(2) (2006). This Section was amended on August 14, 2008, after Jozewicz’s injury occurred. Section 2068(a) now prohibits the sale, manufacture for sale, distribution, or importation of any product (1) “that is not in conformity with an applicable consumer product safety rule,” (2) that is subject to a voluntary corrective action, (3) that is an imminent hazard and subject to a Commission’s order, or (4) that is a banned hazardous substance. Id. § 2068(a)(1)-(2) (2010).
Congress enacted the statute to ensure [*10] safe products are provided to the public and to limit the risk of injury. Once a manufacturer, distributor, or retailer reports a defect to the Commission and a recall alert is published, the alert would have no effect if other retailers were not required to take action to correct the defect or remove the product from their inventory. The law requires distributors and retailers to heed recall alerts issued by the Commission and ensure defective products are either fixed or not sold.
Jozewicz argues that Congress’s public policy concern to prevent unreasonable risk of serious injury or death to the public meets the public policy standard set forth by the Utah Supreme Court, and therefore invalidates her release of GGT’s negligence. GGT contends, however, that Congress did not intend for the Consumer Product Safety Act to preempt state law, and no private cause of action exists under 15 U.S.C. § 2064(b). While this is true, this does not nullify the stated public policy concerns that override the right of parties to contract away tort liability. The rental of the ski bindings at issue in this case became unlawful once the recall notice became effective. Public policy should not favor [*11] allowing a party to insulate itself from harms caused to others arising from unlawful acts. Moreover, a decision that public policy causes a preinjury release to be invalid in this case does not cause GGT to be held liable under the Act, nor does it preempt state law. It merely recognizes Congress’s concern to minimize unreasonable risk to the public of serious injury or death. Such a concern is particularly relevant when a latent defect exists of which distributors and retailers are or should be aware, but not a consumer.
The implication of allowing distributors and retailers to contract away liability for noncompliance with established safety standards would increase the risk of injury and would be contrary to Congress’s express public policy concerns. Furthermore, validating the release of liability for noncompliance with Federal law would effectively reduce or eliminate the responsibility that distributors and retailers have to make sure the products they sell or rent are safe. Public policy should encourage compliance with safety laws, not disregard for such laws. Due to a strong public interest in ensuring adherence to recall alerts, the court concludes that GGT’s release is unenforceable [*12] as a matter of public policy.
GGT’s preinjury release is unenforceable and invalid as a matter of public policy. For this reason, GGT’s motion is DENIED. 22
22 Docket No. 12.
DATED this 2nd day of June, 2010.
BY THE COURT:
/s/ Clark Waddoups
United States District Judge