CHICAGO – While calling the motorcycle accident "tragic," a federal appeals panel has ruled an Indiana couple can't move forward with their attempts to sue the makers of the motorcycle, tires or helmets, who they blame for the injuries they suffered in the crash.
Donald and Mary Timm sued 16 defendants connected with the manufacture, distribution and sale of the Outlaw motorcycle helmets they were wearing at the time of the crash. Several months after the accident, the Timms – who both suffered severe head trauma – learned the specific model of helmet they had been wearing was the subject of a recall.
A federal district judge in Hammond, Ind., ruled the evidence the Timms provided did not show that the defective helmets worsened their injuries. That opinion was backed on Aug. 6 by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
Seventh Circuit Judge Michael Scudder wrote the appellate court’s opinion.
Scudder noted the couple provided no expert testimony, relying mostly on medical records describing the injuries.
“All agree that [the Timms] suffered severe injuries,” Scudder wrote. "But without the assistance of an expert, a juror would be unable to distinguish between those injuries caused by the crash … and any enhanced or more severe injuries caused by the defective helmet."
The crash happened when the rear tire blew out during a cross-country motorcycle ride, causing Donald Timm to lose control and crash the bike into a concrete median. Mary Timm was thrown from the motorcycle while Donald was dragged down the highway. In addition to suing the companies responsible for making and distributing their helmets, the Timms sued motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson and tire manufacturer Goodyear.
“The Timms asserted that the motorcycle’s rear tire was defective and unreasonably dangerous because … it allowed for excessive air leakage and for the tire to unseat … from its rim,” Scudder wrote. “These defects, they maintained, caused Mr. Timm to lose control of the motorcycle and crash. The Timms further alleged that the motorcycle itself was defectively designed because it lacked a tire pressure monitoring system.”
The Timms did provide expert witnesses to back up these claims, but to no avail. The district judge ruled, and the appellate panel agreed, that the experts could not provide any scientific basis for their opinions that a defective tire and a lack of a warning system caused or worsened the Timms’ crash. The district judge excluded their testimony, and the appellate judges upheld that decision.
The Timms and their expert maintained that the tire separated from its rim due to a defect and caused the crash. Goodyear held the opposite view, asserting the tire only separated from the wheel rim because of the crash.
The opinions of the tire expert, the district court wrote, “appear to be based on nothing more than his subjective belief and unsupported speculation.” A hearing revealed the expert, William Woehrle, came to his conclusion about the tire after a physical examination, but that he had no empirical data to back it up, according to court documents.
“Even a ‘supremely qualified expert cannot waltz into the courtroom and render opinions unless those opinions are based upon some recognized scientific method,’” Scudder wrote, quoting Clark v. Takata Corp.
The courts found similar fault with the testimony of Dr. Daniel Lee, an accident reconstructionist. Lee testified that Donald Timm lost control of the motorcycle when the rear tire punctured and began to “hop,” unseating it from the rim. The court noted, however, that Lee had no expertise in tires and could not point to any experiments or literature replicating how such hopping could cause a tire to detach from its rim.
Both Woehrle and Lee also testified to the necessity of a tire pressure monitoring system in the charges against Harley-Davidson. Having already decided to exclude the witnesses’ testimony in their fields of expertise, the court excluded these opinions as well, finding that neither expert met the burden of qualifications to legally opine on the subject of tire pressure monitors on motorcycles.
Scudder – with concurrences from judges Joel M. Flaum and Michael S. Kanne – wrote that the court is sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ plight but cannot offer a legal remedy.
“What happened here was tragic. Donald and Mary Timm suffered extremely serious injuries in an extremely serious motorcycle accident,” he wrote. “We have no doubt that these injuries have impacted their lives in substantial and lasting ways. What we cannot say, though, is that the district court committed any error in rejecting their legal claims. So we are left to affirm.”