Excellent opinion explaining product liability issues under Minnesota law

However this bicycle product liability case is not over.

Sanny, v. Trek Bicycle Corporation, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 65559

Plaintiff: John Sanny and Diana Sanny

Defendant: Trek Bicycle Corporation

Plaintiff Claims: design defect, failure to warn, and failure to provide post-sale warnings

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: Mixed ruling

This is not a final decision in this case; in fact, I suspect this case is still proceeding to trial. This opinion is one from a motion’s hearing decided May 8, 2013 to prepare for trial. I am always hesitant to write about a case when it is still ongoing; however, the case has great information on how courts look at issues in product liability claims.

The plaintiff taught tennis and other classes at the University of Minnesota. He would drive to work, park, then take his bike out of his car and ride the rest of the way to work. To put his bike in his car, he had to remove the front wheel of his bike, which used a quick release. A quick release is a skewer that goes through the wheel axle and using a lever action tightens the wheel to the front fork. The court does an excellent job of explaining how this works showing a real understanding of the facts of the case.

A quick release mechanism, like the one used in Sanny’s bicycle, involves three major components: a bicycle fork designed for quick release use, a front wheel designed for the same, and the quick release device itself. In a bicycle equipped for a quick release tire, the front “fork blades”–the arms of the bicycle which hold the wheel–each end in an open, u-shaped “dropout.” The front wheel has a hollow axle, meaning the axle has a narrow, cylindrical hollow space running its length. The quick release device is a skewer that has an adjustable nut on one end and a lever on the other.

To connect the wheel to the bicycle, the quick release skewer is placed through the hollow of the front wheel’s axle, so that it protrudes on either end by a small amount. The wheel is then placed between the fork blades, so that the dropouts fit on to the skewer, on either side of the wheel axle. To secure the wheel to the bicycle, the rider tightens the nut on one end of the quick release device and presses the lever inward 90 degrees (relative to the skewer) on the other  [*5] end. The lever, acting as a cam, tightens the skewer so that the quick release device is pushing in on each dropout from the outside. This pressure ensures the wheel does not detach during riding; the wheel is essentially “pinched” in place.

One day while riding to work, the plaintiff realized he had forgotten his keys in his car and went back to get them. Getting close to a curb he popped or “bunny hopped” the front of his bike over the curb. The wheel came off and caught in the front brake stopping the bike and throwing the plaintiff into the sidewalk. He sustained injuries from the fall which generated the lawsuit.

The plaintiff sued the defendant bike manufacturer because the bike maker:

…negligently failed to incorporate a “secondary retention system” into the design of Sanny’s [plaintiff] bicycle, which would have acted as a safety mechanism when Sanny’s wheel detached. Plaintiffs also allege Trek failed to warn Sanny of the risk of front wheel detachment in bicycles without secondary retention devices. Finally, Plaintiffs argue they have stated a third claim alleging Trek’s post-sale failure to warn Sanny.

The defendant filed several motions (Motion for Summary Judgment, Motion to Exclude Testimony of Plaintiffs’ Expert Witness David Hallman, and Motion to Strike Changes to Deposition of Plaintiffs’ Expert David Hallman) which resulted in this opinion.

Summary of the case

Design Defect

The court first looked at the Design Defect claims of the plaintiff. Under Minnesota law to prove a design defect claim the plaintiff must prove three elements:

(1) the product was in a defective condition, unreasonably dangerous for its intended use; (2) the defect existed when the product left the manufacturer’s control; and (3) the defect proximately caused the plaintiff’s injury.

The three-part test is fairly common among the states. The test to determine if the three steps have been met is a balancing test. A product is defective if the manufacturer:

…fails to exercise that degree of care in his plan or design so as to avoid any unreasonable risk of harm to anyone who is likely to be exposed to the danger when the product is used in the manner for which the product was intended, as well as an unintended yet reasonably foreseeable use.

What constitutes “reasonable care” will, of course, vary with the surrounding circumstances and will involve a balancing of the likelihood of harm, and the gravity of harm if it happens, against the burden of the precaution which would be effective to avoid the harm.

Because “reasonable minds” could differ, or there were good arguments on both sides, the issue had to go before a jury. A judge is usually limited when the evidence only favors one side or the other or the evidence is so weak it cannot prove a point. Consequently, any question about evidence the court finds credible must go before a jury.

In this case, there were arguments on both sides that the design was or was not defective.

A sub-argument of Design Defect is whether there was a Feasible Alternative Design. This means whether or not there was a feasible, safer alternative to the design at question. If there was a feasible alternative design that the manufacturer did not use, the design defect claim is successful for the plaintiff.

If, at the time the manufacturer designed the product at issue, a safer, feasible design existed, it weighs in favor of finding the contested design unreasonably dangerous. Implicit in this evaluation, however, is the balance between utility and safety. If the alternative design increases safety at the cost of performance or utility, it may warrant the conclusion that the alternative design is not feasible.

In this case, several alternative designs exist, which incorporate secondary retention devices. The issue argued by the defendant was whether any of the designs actually increased bicycle safety. The defendant and the plaintiff then argued that the accident statistics the Defendant had shown a likelihood, of the necessity of a new design or a separate retention system.

… a manufacturer’s notice of other accidents addresses whether a manufacturer exercised sufficient care to eliminate any unreasonable risk of harm from foreseeable uses of its product at the time of design.

Here again, good arguments on each side of the issue means this issue will go before the jury.

Failure to Warn

The failure to warn argument boiled down to this. “Plaintiffs allege Trek failed to properly warn Sanny about the danger of riding a quick-release bicycle not equipped with a secondary retention device.” Under Minnesota law to prove a failure to warn claim, the plaintiff must prove:

(1) the defendant had reason to know of the dangers of using the product; (2) the warnings fell short of those reasonably required, breaching the duty of care; and (3) the lack of an adequate warning caused plaintiff’s injuries.

The plaintiff must prove, under causation, that the warning would have caused him (or her) to “act in a way that would have avoided the injury.” A product warning only needs to warn about the inherent dangers and the proper use of the product. There is no requirement to warn of other design possibilities.

The defendant won this argument because the plaintiff could not prove the causation issue. The plaintiff had been using quick-release hubs for 30 years by the time the accident occurred and had owned and used this bike for 16 years. On this bike, he used the quick release every 2-4 weeks and knew he would crash if he did not attach the wheel properly. Consequently, the court could not find that more information would have caused the plaintiff to act differently.

Failure to warn claim is one that most manufacturers are concerned about because they understand it the most. You must warn your customers of all hazards of your product. You must also warn them of using the product improperly. The problem with this is the improper use of the product does not appear to the manufacturer until after the product is in the market place for a long period of time. Improper use of the product also must be evaluated with any other product the manufacture’s product is used with. An example of this is if consumers are using an ascender improperly this may not make any difference to the ascender. It may continue to work perfectly. However, the ascender manufacturer would be liable if the manufacturer knew consumers were using the ascender improperly in a way that damaged the rope the ascender was attached to, causing the injury.

Post-Sale Failure to Warn

This claim is one of rising argument and interest. The issue is the plaintiff argues that the defendant had a duty after the purchase of the product to warn against the risk or dangers of a product that the manufacturer learned about post-sale. Meaning after the product has been sold and the risk is identified, there is a legal burden on the manufacturer to notify all owners of the potential for injury. This is not the same as a recall because a part can fail, this based on the plaintiff using the product incorrectly.

Explained differently, a recall is based on the fact the part fails and is going to be or must be fixed. The post-sale duty to warn does not mean the product is defective or has a failure of any part. The issue is the manufacturer learning about ways the product can fail or be used incorrectly.

The court looked at an automobile tire product liability case and found the following factors that contribute to a manufacturer’s post sale duty to warn include:

(1) the defendant’s knowledge of problems with the product since the late 1950s, including the knowledge that the product might explode with little provocation; (2) the hidden nature of the danger; (3) the fact that when explosions did occur, serious injury or death usually resulted; (4) defendant remained in that line of business, continued to sell parts for use with the product and had advertised the product within five years of the plaintiff’s injury; and (5) defendant had undertaken a duty to warn of product dangers.

The court seems to argue that the post-sale duty to warn arises when the manufacture creates or accepts a post-sale duty to warn.

“Several decisions have indicated that “continued service, communication with purchasers, or the assumption of the duty to update purchasers, is a necessary element” for a post-sale duty to warn.”

At this time, you can avoid the issue of post-sale duty to warn by informing your customers that you have no liability for informing them of any risks. You are not accepting a new duty. However, that is not how this new area of the law appears to be heading. Whether or not you have accepted the duty to warn consumer’s post-sale is not indicated in all courts.

However, in this case, the plaintiff did not properly plead a post-sale duty to warn in his complaint nor could they prove that the defendant undertook the duty to warn consumers.

In addition, Plaintiffs have not demonstrated whether Trek undertook a duty to warn consumers, or whether Trek engaged customers in ongoing relationships in a way that would give rise to a post-sale duty to warn.

Nor did the plaintiff prove quick-release devices issues usually lead to an injury.

The court also looked at arguments raised by the defendant in regard to the plaintiff’s expert opinion which is procedural and evidentiary in nature, so I’m not going to review them here.

So Now What?

This case is not over, so any “opinion” about it is very premature. However, the opinion is well-written and very educational and for that purpose, I believe it should be brought to your attention no matter who wins or how.

Besides a great explanation of Minnesota Product Liability law, you need to be aware of the following:

Common Critical Manufacture’s Error in Product Liability Cases

Many manufacturers believe that if the error leading to the accident was solely the responsibility of the user, then the manufacturer has no liability. That is not true. Remember, knowledge or foreseeability is important in any negligence or product liability action. If the manufacturer knew that quick releases could be put on improperly leading to injury, then the manufacturer could be liable.

In fact, this issue, of consumer error, is used to prove the plaintiff’s claims because it is an injury that was foreseeable. “Whether the wheel detached due to user error is immaterial, as Trek concedes user error of the quick-release device is a foreseeable cause of injury.”

Post-Sale Duty to Warn

Post-sale duty to warn is the upcoming issue. If you collect information from the consumer for any purpose, you need to (1.) Disclaim any post-sale duty to warn and/or (2.) place that duty on the consumer. If you are collecting information for marketing, the clearly identify that information as such.

At the same time, evaluate the opportunities that can be presented if you continue to communicate with your consumers. Marketing makes promises that risk management must pay for; however, proper marketing can continue to educate the consumer and keep them coming back to your website to learn of any warnings.

There may be a safer way to do something.

If you hear of a manufacturer, inventor or anyone who may have a safer way for the consumer to use your product you need to check it out. You must balance the cost of the new way of using/designing/manufacturing and/or the utility of the product against the effectiveness of what you are doing/designing/manufacturing/using now. You have to see if the injuries are real and if the new idea will prevent or lessen injures.

In this case, you have to lead the industry; you cannot follow.

If you are a manufacturer, you need to consult with an attorney who is an expert in product liability issues to make sure you are not creating product liability claims.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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