Mohr v Yamaha Motor Co. Ltd (2013) H&FLR 2015-13

Dennis Mohr v Yamaha Motor Co. Ltd (2013) H&FLR 2015-13

Superior Court of New Jersey (Appellate Division)

19 July 2013

Coram: Reisner, Yannotti and Harris JJ.

Appearing for the Plaintiff: Herbert Korn, Robert Westreich and William Reutelhuber (of Herbert M Korn PC)
Appearing for the Defendant: Robert Kelly, Christen Moffa, Jason Schmitz and Christine Delany (of Littleton Joyce Ughetta Park & Kelly)

Catchwords: New Jersey – personal injury – product liability – failure to warn – defective product – misuse

Facts: The plaintiff was a recreational rider of snowmobiles.  On 5 February 2005 he was at he home of a friend in upstate New York and borrowed a snowmobile (manufactured by the defendant) belonging to that friend.  He noticed that it was running erratically and concluded that it had a fouled sparkplug.  In an attempt to clear the sparkplug the plaintiff and another man lifted the rear of the snowmobile by a handle attached to the back of the machine while a third man revved the engine (“the process”).  During this process the snowmobile’s track broke and flew backwards, severely injuring the plaintiff’s leg.  The leg was ultimately amputated.

At trial there was considerable lay evidence that the process was commonly used among snowmobilers in order to clear sparkplugs.  However, the machine’s owner’s manual contained warnings against standing behind the snowmobile or lifting its rear while the engine was running. It was not known whether the manual had been available to the plaintiff (let alone read by him) on the day of the accident.  New Jersey’s Product Liability Act provides that a manufacturer –

… shall be liable in a product liability action only if the claimant proves by a preponderance of the evidence that the product causing the harm was not reasonably … safe for its intended purpose because it … failed to contain adequate warnings or instructions (1)

The plaintiff brought proceedings against the defendant in the Superior Court of New Jersey on the basis that the snowmobile had a design defect and that the defendant had provided an inadequate warning against lifting the machine while it was running.  A jury upheld the claim based on failure to warn and damages of approximately $2,500,000.00 were awarded: Mohr v Yamaha Motor Co Ltd (2011), Daily Record, 14 April 2011.  The defendant appealed.

Held: Dismissing the appeal, that –

1. In proving that a product was dangerous and required a warning, a plaintiff is required to address the issue of product misuse, either by showing that there was no misuse or that the misuse that occurred would have been foreseeable to a reasonably prudent manufacturer.

Johansen v Makita USA Inc, 128 NJ 86, 607 A.2d 637 (1992); Cepeda v Cumberland Engineering Co, 76 NJ 152, 386 A.2d 816 (1978); Jurado v Western Gear Works, 131 NJ 375, 619 A.2d 1312 (1993); and Ridenour v Bat Em Out, 309 NJ Super 634 (App. Div. 1998), followed.

2. It was effectively conceded that the plaintiff had misused the snowmobile but that the misuse was foreseeable.  Accordingly the real issue for the jury was whether it was sufficient for the manufacturer to place a warning about the relevant risk of injury only in the owner’s manual, or whether a waning should have been affixed to the snowmobile itself.  On the evidence it was amply open to the jury to find that the defendant had provided an inadequate warning.

3. Obiter, A user’s modification of a product will not relieve a manufacturer of liability for a defective product if the defect remains a contributing proximate cause of the accident or the modification was foreseeable.

Soler v Castmaster, 98 NJ 137, 484 A.2d 1225 (1984) and Butler v PPG Industries Inc, 201 NJ Super 558, 493 A.2d 619 (App. Div. 1985), approved.

Judgment

The Court’s judgment is available here.

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(1) N.J.S.A., 2A:58C-2(b).

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