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Third Circuit affirms directed verdict for Yamaha in products liability action

June 18, 2019

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has upheld a directed verdict that a federal judge awarded to Thompson Coburn client Yamaha Motors Corp. in a serious injury case involving a New Jersey woman. 

Angela Ruggierio received a serious water intrusion injury on a 2009 Yamaha FZR WaveRunner in June 2012 while riding as a passenger just off of Brigantine Township Beach, in the Absecon Inlet near Atlantic City. The facts were in dispute as to the speed and the actions of the craft’s operator, her boyfriend. She settled a claim with her boyfriend for $100,000. At the time of her fall, she was not holding on and she was not wearing protective clothing, as required. She claims that her boyfriend did not tell her that he was going to accelerate. She claims that she never read the warnings on the WaveRunner and no one told her that she needed protective clothing. She also claimed that she couldn’t see the warnings. She filed suit in New Jersey state court, alleging strict liability and negligence claims regarding the craft’s instructions and warnings. Yamaha removed the case to federal court.

Plaintiff designated William Kitzes (previously a lawyer for the Consumer Product Safety Commission) to testify as to his opinions on Safety Management and warnings. He was deposed and Daubert motions were filed. The U.S. District Court in Camden, New Jersey, held a hearing and required Mr. Kitzes to appear at the hearing and testify. After a several-hours-long hearing, cross examination and arguments (as well as additional briefing) the judge excluded Kitzes, but denied summary judgement, ruling that the failure to warn case was submissible to the jury even without expert testimony.

A jury trial was held in January 2018, and, at the close of all the evidence, the judge granted a directed verdict, finding there was no evidence from which the jury could find the warning labels inadequate. The plaintiff appealed. On June 17, 2019, a unanimous Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the exclusion of the plaintiff’s warnings expert and the district court’s directed verdict, finding that the warnings were “reasonable,” “appropriate,” and adequate as a matter of law.

This is the second in a series of wins for Yamaha on this issue; the company previously obtained summary judgment in Hickerson v. Yamaha, after excluding plaintiff’s expert on Daubert grounds.  The Hickerson decision was affirmed in a unanimous published opinion by the Fourth Circuit.

The case was handled by Richard Mueller and Heather Counts of Thompson Coburn, with assistance from New Jersey local counsel, Anza & Assuncao. Ruggierio vs Yamaha. 1-15-cv-00049.