PITTSBURGH, PA – After a two-week trial, an Allegheny County, Pennsylvania jury returned a unanimous defense verdict on Friday, November 14, 2014, in the matter of Dolata, et al., v. Suzuki Motor Corporation, et al.
The Plaintiffs, Joseph and Lori Dolata, as parents and natural guardians for their daughter, Jessica Dolata, filed this civil action against Suzuki Motor Corporation (Suzuki) and Bohn Cycle Shop (Bohn), the manufacturer and distributor of a 2004 Quadsport LT-Z250 all-terrain vehicle (ATV). While operating the ATV on private property at a time when she was 14 years of age, Plaintiffs alleged that Jessica Dolata lost control of her ATV, resulting in severe injuries to her right hip and lower extremity.
The Plaintiffs brought claims for strict products liability centered on an allegation that the throttle system on the 2004 LT-Z250 was defective in design because it permitted debris to enter inside the throttle casing. Plaintiffs theorized that dirt and mud entered the throttle case, causing the ATV to accelerate uncontrollably. In support of their design claim, Plaintiffs asserted that Suzuki failed to utilize an alternative design that would have allegedly prevented the accident, namely an electronic throttle control that would have cut off engine power in the event the mechanical throttle became stuck or jammed. In addition, Plaintiffs alleged that the LT-Z250 ATV was not stable, nor was it crashworthy, given the lack of a rollover protective structure (ROPS).
The Defendants denied Plaintiffs’ claim that the LT-Z250 ATV was defective in any manner. It was the Defendants’ position that the Plaintiff’s accident was the result of mistakes made by a young rider who was operating the ATV on unfamiliar and challenging terrain. As to the alleged design deficiencies, the Defendants maintained that the mechanical throttle system used in the LT-Z250 was a safe and reliable system and that the dirt found in the throttle control post-accident was inconsequential because it would not cause any malfunction in the throttle system. As to the remaining claims, Defendants presented evidence that the dynamic stability of the LT-Z250 was more than adequate and that ROPS was not an appropriate feature for a rider-active off-road vehicle. Ultimately, the Court dismissed the ROPS claim based on Plaintiffs’ inability to meet Pennsylvania’s crashworthiness burden. Evidence concerning the mechanism of the injury was lacking, and Plaintiffs could not link the lack of a ROPS structure to the Plaintiffs’ injuries. As a result, the jury was left to evaluate the throttle system design and stability claims. After deliberating less than an hour, the jury returned a unanimous defense verdict.
Ultimately, Plaintiffs’ attempts to attribute this accident to a throttle system failure and product defect fell short due to several key factors. First, the throttle control was never found to be stuck or jammed, and Plaintiffs’ expert witnesses were never able to duplicate their failure scenario. In contrast, Defendants presented demonstrative testing to show that debris in the throttle case did not interfere with the function of the throttle control. On the stability claim, the Plaintiffs were unable to identify an ATV that had superior stability to the LT-Z250, and the overturn occurred on such an extreme slope that the Plaintiffs were unable to deny the fact that a redesigned vehicle with greater stability might have overturned on the same slope.
The Honorable W. Terrence O’Brien presided over the trial. The case was Dolata. et al., v. Suzuki Motor Corporation, et al, Case No. GD 09-023225, in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Plaintiffs were represented by James Waldenberger of Kline & Specter, P.C. Suzuki and Bohn were represented by Clem C. Trischler of Pietragallo Gordon Alfano Bosick & Raspanti, LLP.