Factual and Procedural Background
In December 2016, Chad Defries’ wife bought a Yamaha dirt bike for her husband as a Christmas present. Mr. Defries first rode the bike one month later. He took it out a second time on Feb. 2017 with two friends, including Johnny Kitchin and Johnny Butcher. The trio decided to ride their bikes at a dirt bike course in Perris. While riding through a portion of the course that consisted of a series of small hills, the throttle on Defries’ motorcycle fell off the handlebar, causing the handlebar to turn to the left and Defries to fall off the bike in a motorcycle accident. Defries broke his right femur, suffered a separated shoulder, and suffered a hernia. Butcher and Kitchin both testified that they saw the throttle hanging off of the bike detached from the handlebar when they loaded the bike in their truck.
Mr. Defries filed a lawsuit against four defendants, including West Coast Yamaha (d/b/a/ Langston Motorsports), Yamaha Motor Manufacturing Corporation of America, Yamaha Motor Corporation Limited (Yamaha Japan), and Yamaha. Against all defendants, Defries alleged causes of action for negligence, manufacturing defect, design defect, failure to warn, and breach of an implied warranty.
Early in the case, Yamaha Japan and Yamaha Motor Manufacturing Corporation of America were dismissed from the case. The remaining defendants included Yamaha and Langston Motorsports. The case proceeded to trial. Before the opening statements, Defries settled with Langston Motorsports for an undisclosed sum. Against Yamaha, Defries withdrew the manufacturing and design defect causes of action, leaving the failure to warn, negligence, and breach of implied warranty causes of action for the jury to determine.
In the negligence cause of action, Defries argued that Yamaha owed a legal duty to ensure the motorbike was assembled so that the throttle would not separate from the handlebar and that the bike was improperly assembled. In opposition to the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, Defries argued that Yamaha had a duty it couldn’t delegate to the dealer to ensure the motorbike was properly assembled.
At trial, Defries argued that the bolts on the throttle were not properly tightened and that Yamaha had a nondelegable duty to ensure the motorbike was assembled properly. Yamaha testified at trial that it purchases motorbikes from Yamaha Japan and then distributes them to dealerships in the U.S. It does not assemble the bikes but simply passes them in crates on through to the dealerships. The dealers finish the assembly before selling the bikes to consumers. Lanston Motorsports assembled the bike, and an expert called by Defries, Russell Darnell, testified that the Langston employee likely tightened one bolt too tight while failing to appropriately tighten the second one. An improperly tightened bolt can loosen during a ride because of vibrations and fall out. Darnell testified that bolts can fall out either when a bolt is over-tightened or when a bolt is not tightened enough. He also testified that the throttle wasn’t routed correctly to the handlebar and that Defries wouldn’t have wrecked his motorbike if it had been properly assembled.
Yamaha argued that the bolts were properly tightened and that if the bolts were loose, the throttle would rotate and prevent Defries from starting the bike. A second expert from Yamaha conceded the throttle was routed incorrectly to the handlebar. Yamaha also alleged that Kitchin and Butcher removed the throttle from the bike following the accident to help Defries. however, an expert witness called by Defries, Brignola, stated there was no evidence that any tampering had occurred.
After the close of the evidence, the court held a short hearing about instructions. Defries requested the court instruct the jury on the fact that Yamaha had a nondelegable duty to ensure its bike was safe for consumers that it could not delegate to Langston Motorsports. The court denied the instruction.
The jury returned special verdicts in favor of Yamaha on all three causes of action. Defries filed a motion for a new trial, which the court denied and awarded Yamaha its costs. Defries filed an appeal.
Issue: Did the Court Commit Prejudicial Error by Refusing to Give Jury Instructions About the Nondelegable Duty Owed by Yamaha?
On appeal, Defries argued that the trial court erred by refusing to give the requested instructions about the agency relationship between Yamaha and Langston Motorsports and the nondelegable duty owed by Yamaha to ensure its bikes were safe for consumers. Yamaha argued that a trial court’s denial of a motion for a new trial was non-appealable.
Rule: Parties Are Entitled to Request Instructions that Correctly State the Law and Include Facts Specific to Their Cases.
Both the plaintiff and the defendant can present proposed jury instructions that the court can use to instruct the jury about the law. The parties are entitled to correct jury instructions that correctly state the law as it pertains to the facts of their cases.
The Court of Appeal first looked at Defries’ proposed instruction about the nondelegable duty and found that the instruction was correct. Yamaha would have a nondelegable duty to ensure the safety of its bikes and would be liable as a matter of law under a theory of product liability if Langston Motorsports improperly assembled Defries’ bike.
The court considered the holding in Vandermark v. Ford Motor Co., 61 Cal.2d 256 (1964). In that case, a man bought a new Ford car in 1958 from Maywood Ford. As he was driving, he suddenly lost control of the car, and it veered off of the highway and struck a light pole. He sued both Maywood Ford and the Ford Motor Company. The trial court granted summary judgment for Ford Motor Company, and the man appealed. He argued that Ford Motor Company had a nondelegable duty to ensure its vehicles were safe for consumers. The company allowed dealers to make final inspections of the vehicles and adjustments to them as needed before selling them. The California Supreme Court held that Ford could not delegate its duty of care to local dealerships, including Maywood Ford and that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to Ford.
The Court of Appeal reasoned that under the Vandermark decision, Defries should have been granted his request to give a nondelegable duty instruction to the jury. The court then looked at where the trial court’s errors were introduced. It first noted that the court had concentrated on the fact that Defries had withdrawn his manufacturing defect cause of action. However, the court found that wouldn’t mean that Defries couldn’t pursue Yamaha for liability based on Langston Motorsports’ negligence under Vandermark. Instead, Defries simply needed to show that Langston was negligent and that Yamaha was thus responsible for its negligence. The court stated the second area of error was that the court found that Defries had failed to prove the agency relationship between Yamaha and Langston. However, the Court of Appeal found that an agency relationship was established since Langston Motorsports was an authorized dealer for Yamaha.
The Court of Appeal then considered whether the trial court’s failure to give the instruction was prejudicial. It found that it was based on several things. First, it found that the evidence showed that Langston Motorsports had assembled the throttle incorrectly and that the jury could reasonably have found that Langston was negligent if it had been allowed to make that determination. The court also noted that there was no other way for the jury to know that any negligence on the part of Langston Motorsports could be imputed to Yamaha through the instructions given. The Court of Appeal found that the jury could have found for Defries if it had been properly instructed and found that the trial court’s decision to deny the motion for a new trial amounted to an abuse of discretion.
The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision denying the motion for a new trial on the negligence cause of action and its decision to award costs to Yamaha. The case was returned to the trial court for further proceedings.
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