United States: Defense Verdict for Harley-Davidson

Skip Eubanks of Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell and Mark Kircher of Quarles & Brady won a defense verdict on behalf of Harley-Davidson on January 19, 2017 in a product liability case in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, Marshall Division. The claims against Harley-Davidson related to Harley-Davidson offer of anti-lock brakes (ABS) as optional as opposed to standard equipment on some of its models including the 2012 Electra Glide Classic. In June 2012, Plaintiff Mark Jones purchased a 2012 Electra Glide Classic from Paris Harley-Davidson in Paris, Texas and did not purchase the optional ABS. A little more than a year later, while Mr. Jones was riding the bike with his wife Pamela Jones as a passenger, a Chevrolet Avalanche made a left turn across their path of travel and into Wal-Mart. There was no collision. Mr. Jones, who had no formal motorcycle training, over applied his brakes causing the bike to skid and ultimately capsize resulting in broken bones and head injuries to both riders. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Jones were wearing helmets.

Mr. and Mrs. Jones filed suit alleging that the 2012 Electra Glide Classic was defective and unreasonably dangerous because it did not have ABS as a standard feature and because Harley-Davidson did not provide adequate descriptions of the benefits of ABS, that H-D was negligent for selling a defective bike without ABS and for failing to warn customers of the benefits of ABS. Plaintiffs alleged that Harley-Davidson's own documents show that ABS is "safer" and also alleged that studies by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and other researchers provided data that demonstrated some safety benefits of ABS; therefore, the state of the art required that ABS should have been standard on Harley-Davidson touring models by 2009 and on all Harley-Davidson models by 2012.

Harley-Davidson denied all the allegations and presented evidence that the 2012 Electra Glide Classic foundation brakes were not defective without ABS, but rather were extremely capable. Harley-Davidson also presented evidence of its efforts in promoting ABS to its customers, and in proliferating ABS as both optional and standard throughout its product portfolio of motorcycles. There was proof that the motorcycle complied with FMVSS 122 which governs motorcycle braking systems and did not mandate ABS at the time the motorcycle was manufactured and does not mandate ABS to this day. Harley-Davidson presented evidence that the vast majority of the motorcycles on the road in 2012 (~91%) did not have ABS, and that H-D's conduct was reasonable and, in fact, extremely responsible through its ABS promotion and proliferation. There was compelling evidence that a significant segment of Harley-Davidson's customers did not wish to have ABS on their motorcycles for various reasons including: customization, strict maintenance requirements, and a desire not to have the increased complexity of a computer controlled braking system.

This case was one that challenged Harley-Davidson's fundamental values of American Freedom. Harley-Davidson's mission statement is "We Fulfill Dreams of Personal Freedom" and this lawsuit attacked those values. Harley-Davidson defended these values and the rights of its customers to make their own decisions as to what features are important to them.

The case went to the jury at 10:30 a.m. and the jury returned a complete defense verdict at 12:30.

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