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Battiato v. Harley-Davidson Motor Co.

June 24, 2010

RUSSELL BATTIATO, PLAINTIFF
v.
HARLEY-DAVIDSON MOTOR COMPANY; JOHN DOES 1-10; ABC CORPORATIONS 1-10; DEF COMPANIES; AND XYZ PARTNERSHIPS DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Munley

MEMORANDUM

Before the court is defendant Harley-Davidson Motor Company's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 40). Having been fully briefed and argued, the matter is ripe for disposition.

Background

This case concerns alleged manufacturing and design defects in the "jiffy stand" on plaintiff's 1992 Harley-Davidson Sportster motorcycle. Plaintiff contends that the stand malfunctioned, causing the motorcycle to tip over on top of him and injure his leg. Plaintiff's business acquired this motorcycle used around the year 2000. (Defendant's Statement of Undisputed Material Facts (Doc. 42) (hereinafter "Defendant's Statement") at ¶ 1); Plaintiff's Response to Defendant's Statement (Doc. 47) (hereinafter "Plaintiff's Response") ¶ 1). Plaintiff began riding the motorcycle himself, and eventually purchased it from the business. (Defendant's Statement at ¶ 1).

Plaintiff's motorcycle had a "jiffy stand" kickstand, which was designed to hold the bike upright when not being operated. (Id. at ¶ 2). The stand consists of a bracket or yoke, a stand leg, and a spring which attaches to the stand and to an attachment welded onto the motorcycle frame. (Id.). Plaintiff insists that facts about the design of the motorcycle require expert analysis. (Plaintiff's Response at ¶ 2). When the motorcycle is operated, the spring is designed to hold the stand in a fully retracted position against the frame. (Defendant's Statement at ¶ 3). Plaintiff contends that only expert analysis can provide an analysis of the spring's purpose. (Plaintiff's Response at ¶ 3). The stand is placed in the "fully deployed" position when the motorcycle is not being operated. (Defendant's Statement at ¶ 4). The operator then leans the motorcycle to the left, resting its weight on the stand. (Id. at ¶ 5). This action engages the stand's locking tab, which prevents the stand from retracting while the bike is at rest. (Id.).

Defendant contends that the stand's design meets all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and safety standards from the Society of Automotive Engineers. (Id. at ¶ 6). Plaintiff disputes whether defendant has provided sufficient proof of this claim, since that proof relies on defendant's answers to interrogatories and defendant does not provide independent documentation. (Plaintiff's Response at ¶ 6). Plaintiff also disputes that complying with standards demonstrates that the design of the jiffy stand was safe and appropriate. (Id.).

The defendant sold 164,281 Sportster motorcycles between 1989 and 1999. (Defendant's Statement at ¶ 7). All of them had the same jiffy stand components as the one owned by plaintiff. (Id.). Defendant insists that no other Sportsters with a jiffy stand experienced a similar unintentional or unexpected retraction. (Id. at ¶ 8). Plaintiff contends that in its interrogatories defendant provided evidence of complaints about defects and unexpected retractions with a number of jiffy stands on other Harley-Davidson models. (Plaintiff's Response at ¶ 8).

The undercarriage of the motorcycle in question sustained damage at some point. (Defendant's Statement at ¶ 9). The parties dispute when this damage occurred. (Id. at ¶ 9; Plaintiff's Response at ¶ 9). The impact to the undercarriage of the motorcycle caused the stand's attachment point on the frame to be bent rearward. (Defendant's Statement ¶ 9). Plaintiff contends that he was not aware of any damage, though that damage did "[compromise] the functioning of the kickstand." (Plaintiff's Response at ¶ 9). The parties dispute how to characterize plaintiff's testimony about the condition of the kickstand. Defendant argues that plaintiff testified that he had been aware for nearly a year that the stand was operating on a "hair trigger," and retracting more easily than normal. (Defendant's Statement at ¶ 10). Plaintiff contends that this mischaracterizes his testimony, which was about a dealer's attempt to fix his problem, and in any case did not refer to a particular time period. (Plaintiff's Response at ¶ 10). Plaintiff recognized that his kickstand was a problem, and when defendant's authorized dealer could not fix that problem, he brought the motorcycle to another repairer. (Defendant's Statement at ¶ 11; Plaintiff's Response at ¶ 11). A mechanic examined the motorcycle shortly before the accident here in question. (Defendant's Statement at ¶ 11). The parties agree that the mechanic found a problem with the kickstand, but do not agree about how extensively the mechanic described the problem to plaintiff. (Defendant's Statement at ¶ 12; Plaintiff's Statement at ¶ 12). Defendant contends that plaintiff was aware that the failings of the kickstand could cause injury. (Defendant's Statement at ¶ 13). Plaintiff contends that he testified only that the motorcycle might fall down if the kickstand failed. (Plaintiff's Response at ¶ 13).

On the day of his injury, plaintiff picked up his motorcycle from a repair shop in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania. (Defendant's Statement at ¶ 14). He planned to load the motorcycle onto a trailer. (Id.). Defendant insists that plaintiff noticed a continuing problem with the stand when he picked up the motorcycle. (Id.). Plaintiff disputes the significance of this knowledge, as he contends he was not aware of the risk that the bike would fall over on top of him because of those failings. (Plaintiff's Response at ¶ 14).

Plaintiff rode the motorcycle onto the trailer. (Defendant's Statement at ¶ 15). He turned off the engine and deployed the jiffy stand. (Id.). As he dismounted from the bike, plaintiff reports that he heard the stand retract, and the motorcycle fell over on his leg. (Id.). Plaintiff contends that the accident was caused by the stand retracting improperly as he was getting off the motorcycle. (Id. at ¶ 16). Plaintiff contends that his injuries were caused by the improper design of the jiffy stand. (Plaintiff's Response at ¶ 16). He alleges that defendant placed the pin of the stand assembly on the lowest point of the frame, making the pin susceptible to bending, which could cause an incident like the one plaintiff experienced. (Id.).

Plaintiff filed the instant complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New Jersey on June 2, 2006. (See Doc. 1). The complaint alleges that defendant manufactured and sold a defective product, and that plaintiff injured himself while using the product as it was designed to be used. Plaintiff fractured his leg so severely that he was medically discharged from the United States Army. On October 31, 2006, the district court in New Jersey dismissed the complaint for failure to prosecute. (Doc. 4). Defendant answered the complaint on December 11, 2006. (Doc. 5). Because of problems in the office of the lawyer who filed the case, no action occurred in the matter until June 2008, when plaintiff moved to reopen the action. (Doc. 7). The court in New Jersey granted this motion. (Doc. 9). The court also agreed to transfer the case to the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. (Doc. 12). The parties then engaged in discovery. At the close of discovery, defendant filed the instant motion. The parties briefed the issues*fn1, and the court held argument, bringing the case to its present posture.

Jurisdiction

Plaintiff is a citizen of Pennsylvania. Defendant is a Wisconsin corporation, with its principal place of business in that state. The amount in controversy exceeds $75,000. The court therefore has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332. The court is sitting in diversity, and therefore the substantive law of Pennsylvania shall apply. Chamberlain v. Giampapa, 210 F.3d 154, 158 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Erie R.R. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 78 (1938)).

Legal Standard

Defendant moves for summary judgment on plaintiff's claims. Granting summary judgment is proper if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Knabe v. Boury, 114 F.3d 407, 410 n.4 (3d Cir. 1997) (citing FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c)). "[T]his standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986) (emphasis in original).

In considering a motion for summary judgment, the court must examine the facts in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. International Raw Materials, Ltd. v. Stauffer Chemical Co., 898 F.2d 946, 949 (3d Cir. 1990). The burden is on the moving party to demonstrate that the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could not return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248 (1986). A fact is material when it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Id. Where the non-moving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the party moving for summary judgment may meet its burden by showing that the evidentiary materials of record, if reduced to admissible evidence, would be insufficient to carry the non-movant's burden of proof at trial. Celotex v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

Discussion

Defendant seeks summary judgment on various grounds in this products liability claim. The court will address each in turn. As a preliminary matter, "the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has remained faithful to its view that negligence concepts have no place in a products liability trial." Habecker v. Clark Equip. Co., 36 F.3d 278, 282 (3d Cir. 1994). Thus, "[t]he test for defectiveness is whether the 'product left the supplier's control lacking any element necessary to make it safe for its intended use or possessing any feature that renders it unsafe for the intended use.'" Id. (quoting Azzarello v. Black Bros. Co., 391 A.2d 1020, 1027 (Pa. 1978)). To prevail on a products liability claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate "that: (1) the product was defective, (2) the defect existed while the product was in control of the manufacturer, and (3) the defect was the proximate cause of the injuries." Id. at 284. Pennsylvania courts have found "that a product is defective when it is not fit for the intended use for which it was sold." Colville v. Crown Equip. Corp., 809 A.2d 916, 922 (Pa. Super. Ct. ...


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