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Atlanta Court Says Helmet Reseller Not Liable for Bicycle Accident Injuries

Georgia’s product liability law allows a consumer injured by a dangerous or defective product to sue the manufacturer for damages. George employs a “strict liability” standard, which means the manufacturer is responsible even if there was no evidence that it was negligent. This strict liability rule only applies to actual manufacturers, however, and not companies that merely sell or distribute a product created by a third party.

Williams v. Pacific Cycle, Inc.

A company may be considered a “seller” even if it played some role in a defective product’s design or packaging, as a recent decision by a federal appeals court in Atlanta illustrates. The plaintiff in this case suffered a severe brain injury following a bicycle accident. He accused the defendant of manufacturing the defective bicycle helmet he was wearing at the time of the accident.

The defendant is a company that holds various trademarks used to market bicycle equipment. The defendant previously licensed its marks to another company that sold bicycle helmets. The defendant later acquired that company’s assets and continued to market helmets.

The plaintiff’s helmet was actually manufactured by an overseas company. The defendant imported this manufacturer’s helmets into the United States and sold them to customers. The defendant also “set certain design specifications and requirements” for the helmets to conform to its branding standards. The defendant also prepared the owner’s manual for the helmet.

The defendant argued that it was not liable under Georgia law for any defects in the helmet’s manufacture since it was only the reseller. A judge agreed and granted summary judgment to the defendant. The plaintiff appealed, but the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta agreed with the trial judge’s decision. (Although this case was tried in federal court, Georgia state law still applies to the plaintiff’s claims.)

The 11th Circuit explained that under Georgia law, the defendant’s actions were “not sufficient” to render it the “manufacturer” of the bicycle helmet for liability purposes. The fact the defendant provided certain “minor design specifications” for the helmet did not make it a participant in the manufacturing process. Even writing the helmet’s instruction manual should be considered a form of “labeling” rather than manufacturing, according to the court.

The plaintiff argued that the defendant could still be held liable because it has a separate duty under federal law to ensure the safety of products imported into the United States. The 11th Circuit said these federal regulations did not bring the defendant “within the definition of a manufacturer under Georgia law.” In any event, federal safety regulations allow an importer to rely on its foreign manufacturer to conduct any necessary safety tests—the defendant here played no active role in that process.

The 11th Circuit also rejected the plaintiff’s claim that the defendant “failed to warn” customers about the potential safety risks of the helmets it sold. The court pointed out that in Georgia, a product seller is only liable for a failure to warn if it “has actual knowledge or should have reasonably foreseen a danger from the product.” Here, there was no evidence in the record that suggested there were any safety problems with the helmets aside from the plaintiff’s own lawsuit.