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On January 31, 2013, Judge Jeremiah Lynch granted American Honda's motion to strike the testimony of plaintiff's key liability expert and granted Honda's post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law. The Court's ruling follows a two week trial last fall in Missoula, Montana. After five days of deliberations, the seven member jury reported that it was hopelessly deadlocked, and on November 6, 2012, Judge Lynch declared a mistrial.
The trial involved a 2007 Honda TRX 420FE Rancher all-terrain vehicle purchased new by 40-year-old Zane Johnson. According to Mr. Johnson, on July 4, 2007, the Rancher's handlebars "locked up" as he entered a sharp turn on a dirt and gravel forest service road outside of Zortman, Montana. Johnson claimed that the locked handlebars caused him to go straight through the turn and tumble down a steep 100-foot embankment. Johnson sustained various orthopaedic injuries including several fractured cervical vertebrae, a fractured wrist and an injured knee. He also claimed a debilitating traumatic brain injury.
Plaintiff alleged that the Rancher's steering locked up because of a manufacturing defect in the right front drive shaft of his 3½ month old vehicle. Honda contended that the subject drive shaft was properly assembled, that the drive shaft had been removed prior to the crash and that the removal of a front drive shaft has no effect on operation in two-wheel drive. Plaintiff was riding in two-wheel drive at the time of his crash.
Plaintiff's principal liability expert was Montana State University mechanical engineering assistant professor Robb Larson. On cross-examination, Mr. Larson admitted that the alleged defect would not cause the vehicle's steering to "lock up" in the manner described by plaintiff and that he had not tested his hypothesis about the effect that a defectively manufactured drive shaft would have on the vehicle's steering. For these and other reasons, Judge Lynch struck Larson's testimony as unreliable and irrelevant.
Following the Court's rulings, Honda's lead trial counsel, Paul Cereghini commented:
"Expert testimony in federal court must be reliable in its methodology and helpful to the jury. Here, the Court found that the testimony of plaintiff's sole liability expert was neither. Plaintiff's case hinged on his expert's testimony, so once the Court struck that testimony, plaintiff's entire case crumbled."
Mr. Cereghini is an Executive Managing Partner for the national product liability defense firm of Bowman and Brooke LLP.
In addition to Assistant Professor Larson of Bozeman, Montana, plaintiff's experts at trial were neuropsychologist Dr. William Patenaude of Missoula, Montana; Dr. Bill S. Rosen of Missoula, Montana; life care planner William R. Goodrich of Missoula, Montana and economist Joseph E. Kasperick of Butte, Montana.
Honda's experts at trial were vehicle design engineer, Graeme Fowler of Sacramento, California; accident reconstructionist Kris Kubly of Madison, Wisconsin; and metallurgical engineer Michael Stevenson of Norcross, Georgia.
Honda's lead counsel was Paul G. Cereghini of Bowman and Brooke LLP, Phoenix, Arizona. Mr. Cereghini's co-counsel were William F. Auther of Bowman and Brooke, LLP and Gerry P. Fagan of Moulton Bellingham, P.C. of Billings, Montana.
Plaintiff's lead counsel was Martin W. Judnich of the Law Office of Martin W. Judnich, P.C. of Missoula, Montana. Mr. Judnich was assisted at trial by Vincent J. Pavlish of the Law Office of Martin W. Judnich, P.C. of Missoula, Montana and Mat Stevenson of Missoula, Montana.
Zane Johnson, Plaintiff v. American Honda Motor Company, Inc., Defendant, United States District Court for the District of Montana, Missoula Division, Case No. 10-126-M-JCL, U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah C. Lynch presiding.
Paul G. Cereghini is a Bowman and Brooke Executive Managing Partner. He can be reached at 602-643-2400 or at email@example.com.