Contributed by Elizabeth Boggia
Many of us are familiar with Harley-Davidson Inc.’s motto, “Fulfilling dreams of personal freedom”, however this phrase has very recently become more meaningful for the Fortune 500 motorcycle company. In mid-October, an Alabama jury found in favor of Harley-Davidson in a $150 million lawsuit brought by a widow of a driver who was involved in a fatal motorcycle accident. The widow claimed that the Dyna Wide Glide motorcycle was unreasonably dangerous and defective because anti-lock brakes are optional, rather than a standard feature on the model. It is uncontested that Mr. Carey purchased his motorcycle in 2011 without the optional anti-lock brakes.
Amanda Carey, widow of the decedent, Benjamin Carey III, sued Harley-Davidson for wrongful death after Mr. Carey, who had no formal motorcycle training, was riding at night when a car made a left turn in from of him. He swerved and over-applied his brakes, resulting in the bike skidding and flipping. Though no collision is said to have occurred, Mr. Carey died of head injuries. The case, Carey v. Harley-Davidson, et al., 02-cv-2013-902409, was venued in the Circuit Court of Mobile County, Alabama.
In making her case, Ms. Carey presented evidence that demonstrated the safety benefits of anti-lock brakes and argued that these features should be standard on all motorcycles. Harley-Davidson argued that the overwhelming majority of motorcycles on the road did not have anti-lock brakes at the time of Mr. Carey’s accident. Additionally, the defense argued that a significant number of Harley-Davidson customers actually did not want anti-lock brakes for an array of reasons, including strict maintenance requirements for them. Harley-Davidson presented evidence of its promotion of anti-lock brakes to customers, but stood firm as valuing the freedom and rights of its customers to make their own decisions. Following only a 45-minute deliberation, the Alabama jury returned a verdict in favor of Harley-Davidson.
This case illustrates the concept of “unreasonably dangerous and defective” and reiterates the important principle that just because a product can, in some cases, cause harm, it should not automatically be deemed unreasonably dangerous and defective. As a recap, a product is in a defective condition and unreasonably dangerous to the user when it has a propensity or tendency for causing physical harm beyond that which would be contemplated by the ordinary user, having ordinary knowledge of the product’s characteristics commonly known to the foreseeable class of persons who would normally use the product. Generally, a defectively designed product is one which, at the time it leaves the seller’s hands, is in a condition not reasonably contemplated by the ultimate consumer and is unreasonably dangerous for its intended use. If the utility of a product does not outweigh the danger inherent in its introduction into the stream of commerce, then the product is defectively designed.
In this instance, the customers buying motorcycles from Harley-Davidson have the option of buying a bike with or without anti-lock brakes, and furthermore, can reasonably be said to have more knowledge about motorcycles than non-customers. The jury’s ruling indicates that the fact that motorcycles purchased without anti-lock brakes have the potential to lock and result in injury, alone, is not enough to deem the product unreasonably dangerous and defective. Additionally, the verdict means that the utility of having non anti-lock brakes was substantial enough to outweigh the inherent dangers it presents. In ruling in favor of Harley-Davidson, the jury protected the Company’s notion of personal freedom and making an informed decision in the products context. We will continue to monitor and report on consumer products cases, like this one, as they arise.