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Estate of Thompson v. Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Ltd.

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Western Division

February 11, 2013

The ESTATE OF Scott W. THOMPSON, by the Personal Representatives, Randy W. Thompson and Vicky J. Thompson, and Randy W. Thompson and Vicky J. Thompson, Individually, Plaintiffs,
v.
KAWASAKI HEAVY INDUSTRIES, LTD., Kawasaki Motors Corp., U.S.A., and Ohlins Racing AB, Defendants.

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Frederick W. James, The James Law Firm, PC, Des Moines, IA, Douglas Richard Bradley, Scott Eric Nutter, Shamberg, Johnson & Bergman, Chtd., Kansas City, MO, for Plaintiffs.

Kevin M. Reynolds, Whitfield & Eddy, PLC, Des Moines, IA, Terrance M. Miller, Elizabeth Laudeman Moyo, Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP, Columbus, OH, for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER REGARDING DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

MARK W. BENNETT, District Judge.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

I.

INTRODUCTION 782

A.

Factual Background 782

B.

Procedural Background 784

II.

LEGAL ANALYSIS 785

A.

Standards For Summary Judgment 785

B.

Claims No Longer At Issue 785

C.

The " Manufacturing Defect" Claims 787

1.

Arguments of the parties 787

2.

" Manufacturing defect" standards 788

3.

Application of the standards 790

a.

Departure from intended design 790

b.

Causation 792

D.

The " Design Defect" Claim Against Ohlins 792

1.

Arguments of the parties 793

2.

Component manufacturer liability for a " design defect" 793

3.

Application of the standards 795

E.

Punitive Damages Claims 796

1.

Arguments of the parties 796

2.

Standards for punitive damages under Iowa law 797

3.

Application of the standards 799

III.

CONCLUSION 800

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In this diversity action under Iowa products liability law, arising from a motorcycle accident, I am asked to determine whether the plaintiffs are entitled to present to a jury both their design defect and manufacturing defect claims and, if so, whether the plaintiffs can assert either or both claims against the motorcycle manufacturer and the manufacturer of an adjustable steering damper incorporated into the motorcycle's steering mechanism. These questions, and others, are presented on the defendants' motions for summary judgment.

I. INTRODUCTION

A. Factual Background

As is my usual practice, I set forth here only those facts, disputed and undisputed, sufficient to put in context the parties' arguments concerning the defendants' motions for summary judgment. Unless otherwise indicated, the facts recited here are undisputed, at least for purposes of summary judgment. I will discuss additional factual allegations, and the extent to which they are or are not disputed or material, if necessary, in my legal analysis.

At about sunset on March 21, 2009, Scott Thompson was riding his 2007 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R motorcycle in a convoy with two friends on county road K-22 in Plymouth County, Iowa. One of Thompson's friends, Dave Lachioma, who was also riding a motorcycle, led the convoy, the other friend, Michael Welter, followed in his car, and Thompson brought up the rear on his motorcycle. While driving northbound on K-22, Thompson passed Welter, who was driving at 60 to 65 mph. A few seconds after Thompson passed him, Welter observed the taillight of Thompson's motorcycle wobble from side to side. Although Welter observed that it looked like Thompson was regaining control of his motorcycle, Thompson was tossed from the motorcycle, slid on his back, feet first, across the highway, and landed in a ditch on the west side of the highway. The motorcycle continued upright in the northbound lane for another several hundred feet, before exiting the highway on the east side. As a result of the accident, Thompson suffered a burst fracture at the T3-T4 vertebrae, causing paralysis below that level. Thompson died on December 25, 2011.

Turning to essential background on motorcycle performance, " kickback" occurs when there is a disturbance to the motorcycle, such as a gap in the pavement might cause, that creates handlebar vibrations. " Convergence" occurs when kickback decreases and disappears as the motorcycle continues to run. In contrast, " expansion" occurs when kickback continues to increase as the motorcycle continues to run. Kickback expansion, in turn, can turn into " wobble" of the motorcycle, but if kickback

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convergence occurs within an acceptable time frame, " wobble" is avoided. Wobble can make it difficult for a rider to control the motorcycle.

The parties agree that a " steering damper" is a device with which a motorcycle can be equipped for the purpose of minimizing kickback and bringing about faster convergence— indeed, Kawasaki expressly concedes that a steering damper is a " safety device" for that purpose. In general, the higher the dampening force in a steering damper, the quicker kickback can be dampened. A " dampening curve" provides the various dampening levels at a particular velocity (piston speed) for a particular steering damper. The dampening curves are generated through laboratory tests by a hydraulic machine referred to as a " dyno machine" (dynamometer). A steering damper may be adjustable, that is, have different " click positions," which adjust the dampening to rider preferences. The plaintiffs allege that Thompson's motorcycle accident was the result of the defective design and/or manufacture of his 2007 Ninja ZX-10R motorcycle, because the steering damper on the motorcycle was insufficient and the motorcycle was not reasonably stable.

Defendant Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Ltd. (KHI), a Japanese company, admits that it is responsible for the design, developmental testing, and manufacture of the 2007 Kawasaki ZX-10R model motorcycle at issue in this case. Defendant Kawasaki Motors Corp., U.S.A. (KMC), a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Irvine, California, admits that it is responsible for the marketing of the motorcycle in question in the United States and the wholesale sale of the motorcycle in question to independent dealers in the United States. The parties agree that the motorcycle in question was equipped with a steering damper, as an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) component, designed and manufactured by Ohlins Racing, AB (Ohlins), a Swedish company with its principal place of business in Väsby, Sweden.

The parties agree that both the 2006 model and the 2007 model Ninja ZX-10R motorcycles are part of Kawasaki's 1010 motorcycle platform and that they have the identical chassis. Indeed, they agree that the only difference between the 2006 and the 2007 model year Ninja ZX-10R is that the steering dampers on the two models are different. In over a year-and-a half of development of the model year 2006 Ninja ZX-10R motorcycle, Kawasaki selected the Ohlins model SD-1790 steering damper with specific dampening levels and values that Kawasaki believed provided the optimal performance for the customer and the best fit for the 2006 model year. On March 10, 2006, however, Kawasaki made the decision to modify the steering damper on the 2007 Ninja ZX-10R by reducing the dampening value. This decision followed a test ride in which the mounting bracket for the steering damper failed. The parties agree that, on April 11, 2006, Mr. Bjö rkman, an Ohlins design engineer, wrote an e-mail to Kawasaki about the change, in which he stated, " I don't think you want very much less damping either, because there is almost no function left." Plaintiffs' Appendix at 47, Exhibit 3. The parties dispute whether Mr. Bjö rkman was stating a safety concern or simply relaying performance concerns from racing customers. Ultimately, Kawasaki selected the Ohlins model SD-1791 steering damper for the 2007 Ninja ZX-10R motorcycle to replace the SD-1790 steering damper that had been used on the 2006 Ninja ZX-10R. Although the parties dispute the precise values, they agree that the steering damper on the 2007 Ninja ZX-10R model had significantly less viscous dampening for the motorcycle system (a maximum of 1750 newtons at .6 meters per

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second) than the steering damper on the 2006 Ninja ZX-10R (a maximum of either 4000 or 3600 newtons at .6 meters per second).

B. Procedural Background

On March 16, 2011, prior to Scott Thompson's death, Randy W. Thompson and Vicky J. Thompson, individually and as personal representatives of Scott Thompson, filed a Complaint (docket no. 2), initiating this action against various defendants, including KHI, KMC, and Ohlins, and alleging claims arising from Scott Thompson's accident. The Thompsons' controlling pleading is now their First Amended Complaint (docket no. 48), filed on April 23, 2012, after Scott Thompson's death. In their First Amended Complaint, the Thompsons assert claims of " strict liability product defects," alleging both " design" and " manufacturing" defects, " breach of implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose," and " negligence" against KHI and KMC, in Counts I, II, and III, respectively; similar claims against Ohlins, in Counts IV, V, and VI, respectively; and a claim for " punitive damages" against KHI, KMC, and Ohlins in Count VIII.[1] KMC and KHI filed separate Answers (docket nos. 49 and 50, respectively) on May 4, 2012, and Ohlins filed its Answer (docket no. 52) on May 7, 2012, denying the claims against them in the Thompsons' First Amended Complaint.

On November 5, 2012, KMC and KHI, referring to themselves collectively as " Kawasaki," filed their Motion For Partial Summary Judgment (docket no. 64), seeking summary judgment in their favor on that part of the Thompsons' " product defects" claim alleging a " manufacturing defect" — but not on the part alleging a " design defect" — their " breach of implied warranty" claim, their " negligence" claim, and their prayer for " punitive damages." On November 5, 2012, Ohlins's filed its Joinder In Motion For Summary Judgment (docket no. 66), seeking summary judgment in its favor on the same claims as Kawasaki, but accompanied by a separate brief, statement of undisputed facts, and appendix. After obtaining authorization and extensions of time to do so, Ohlins filed its November 27, 2011, Supplemental (Amended And Substituted) Motion For Summary Judgment (docket no. 71), adding that Ohlins is also entitled to summary judgment on the Thompsons' " design defect" claim.

On December 18, 2012, the Thompsons filed separate Responses (docket nos. 73 and 74, respectively) to Kawasaki's Motion For Partial Summary Judgment and Ohlins' Supplemental (Amended And Substituted) Motion For Summary Judgment. Kawasaki filed a Response (docket no. 75) to the Thompsons' statement of additional facts and a Reply (docket no. 76) in further support of its Motion For Partial Summary Judgment on December 28, 2012. After an extension of time to do so, Ohlins filed a Reply (docket no. 80) to the Thompsons' statement of additional facts.

By Order (docket no. 82), dated January 11, 2013, I granted the Thompsons leave to file a supplemental response to the defendants' Motions For Summary Judgment, based on their assertion that they had only recently obtained additional information relevant to their responses. On January 14, 2013, the Thompsons filed their Supplemental Opposition To Ohlins's Motion For Summary Judgment (docket no. 84), and their Supplemental Opposition To Kawasaki's Motion For Partial Summary Judgment (docket no. 85). On January 21, 2013, Kawasaki filed its Reply (docket no.

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86) and its Response To Plaintiffs' Supplemental Statement Of Additional Material Facts To Defendant Kawasaki (docket no. 87), in response to the Thompsons' Supplemental Opposition to Kawasaki's Motion For Partial Summary Judgment. Also on January 21, 2013, Ohlins filed its Reply, denominated its Response To Plaintiffs' Supplemental Brief In Opposition To [Its] Motion For Summary Judgment (docket no. 88), in further support of its Motion For Summary Judgment.

The parties requested oral arguments on the summary judgment motions. My crowded schedule has not permitted the timely scheduling of such oral arguments, and I find that the parties' written submissions on the issues presented are sufficient to resolve the pending motions without oral arguments. Therefore, I will resolve the motions based on the parties' written submissions.

II. LEGAL ANALYSIS

A. Standards For Summary Judgment

Summary judgment is only appropriate when " the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." FED.R.CIV.P. 56(c) (emphasis added); see Woods v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 409 F.3d 984, 990 (8th Cir.2005) (" Summary judgment is appropriate if viewing the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." ); see generally Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). As the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has explained,

" On a motion for summary judgment, ‘ facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party only if there is a genuine dispute as to those facts.’ " Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 129 S.Ct. 2658, 2677, 174 L.Ed.2d 490 (2009) quoting Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 167 L.Ed.2d 686 (2007) (internal quotations omitted). " Credibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000), quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). The nonmovant " must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts," and must come forward with " specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 ...

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