Motorcycle accidents often leave the victim with devastating injuries. So, when the accident is even partially the result of a defect in the design or production of the motorcycle itself, the manufacturer may be liable for damages under Georgia law. However, a judge or jury may decide that the motorcyclist was also partially responsible and reduce the manufacturer’s liability accordingly.
Suzuki Motor of America, Inc. v. Johns
This is precisely what happened in a recent case before the Georgia Court of Appeals, Suzuki Motor of America, Inc. v. Johns. A jury determined that the manufacturer of a motorcycle was 51% responsible for an accident that injured the plaintiff. Both sides appealed the verdict for different reasons, but the appeals court declined to second-guess the jury.
Here is some background on the case. The plaintiff owned a 2006 Suzuki GSX-R1000 motorcycle for approximately eight years. In August 2013, the plaintiff planned to take a weekend ride on his bike. He conducted a pre-ride inspection and noticed the front brake “felt spongy.” He consulted with his father-in-law, a motorcycle mechanics, who advised him to drain some of the air out of the brake. The plaintiff did this and felt the “problem appeared to be resolved.”
A few days later, the plaintiff rode his motorcycle to work. After driving about 20 miles, the plaintiff said he “experienced a total failure of his front brake.” He attempted to slow down using only the rear brake, which caused the motorcycle “to skid and swerve” before throwing the plaintiff off the bike. The plaintiff suffered serious injuries in the fall, which required surgery on both his spinal cord and hand.
Some time later, Suzuki notified the plaintiff that his motorcycle was subject to a recall due to a “dangerous safety defect in his motorcycle’s front brake master cylinder.” The recall notice expressly stated that operating the motorcycle “without having the recall service performed may increase the risk of a crash.”
The plaintiff subsequently sued Suzuki under Georgia product liability law. At trial, Suzuki argued that, notwithstanding the recall notice, brake failure was not the cause of the plaintiff’s accident. Instead, Suzuki suggested it was the plaintiff’s own negligence that was to blame. Among other things, Suzuki pointed to the fact that the plaintiff failed to change the brake fluid in his motorcycle despite owning it for eight years.
The jury ultimately found in favor of the plaintiff and awarded him $10.5 million in compensatory damages. This was offset, however, by the jury finding the plaintiff 49% responsible for the accident. The jury also declined the plaintiff’s request for punitive damages.
On appeal, Suzuki again cited the plaintiff’s failure to change his brake fluid as proof the jury should have ruled in its favor. In Suzuki’s view, the plaintiff’s actions “materially altered” the motorcycle and “acted as an intervening cause that broke the causal connection between its defective design and [the plaintiff’s] injuries.” The appeals court said the jury properly considered and rejected this argument.
As for the plaintiff, he challenged the judge’s decision to reduce the $10.5 million award to account for the plaintiff’s 49% share of the liability. The plaintiff maintained Georgia law did not allow for such reductions with respect to a “strict liability” claim. Again, the Court of Appeals disagreed. It said the rule of comparative fault, which is mandated by the General Assembly, applied to all claims “for injury to person.”