A federal court in Indiana issued multiple rulings on September 14, 2017, excluding two of the plaintiff’s expert witnesses in a product liability lawsuit and granting summary judgment for the defendant, safety equipment manufacturer Leatt Corporation.
The Daubert and summary judgment motions were prepared by Stites & Harbison attorneys John L. Tate, Bruce B. Paul, and Robin E. McGuffin, based in the firm’s offices in Louisville, Ky., Jeffersonville, In., and Lexington, Ky., respectively.
Judge Paul Cherry, U.S.D.C., N.D. Indiana, Lafayette Division, excluded proposed testimony by biomechanical engineer Tyler Kress, Ph.D., and a former motocross champion and riding instructor Ryan Hughes, before ruling that Leatt Corporation was entitled to summary judgment.
Plaintiff Brock Lyons sued Leatt Corporation for damages incurred after suffering permanent paraplegia in April 2014 as a result of losing control of his 450cc dirt bike and crashing during a motocross practice session at Wildcat Creek MX in northern Indiana. Lyons estimated he was traveling 40 mph when he was thrown over the handlebars and landed head first, fracturing his thoracic spine at T5-T6. Lyons alleged that his Leatt-Brace®, a neck protection device he wore for seven years, either caused injury to his lower spine or failed to protect him from that injury.
Assessing the proposed testimony of Dr. Kress, who claimed the Leatt-Brace® caused a restricted range of motion that led to thoracic fractures, Judge Cherry wrote: “Dr. Kress has not specifically identified any mathematical equation, principle of physics or biomechanics, formula, or test results that support his hypothesis.” Discussing the fact that Dr. Kress performed laboratory testing at Virginia Tech in 2012 to measure forces imparted to the spine in head-first impacts with and without a Leatt-Brace®, the court ruled the 2012 testing “provides no scientific support for Dr. Kress’ opinion…that wearing the brace causes higher force on the thoracic spine.” Instead, the court found, Kress’s own testing “showed no increase in the transfer of forces to the thoracic spine when wearing the Leatt Brace®.”
Equally important in the court’s view was the fact that Dr. Kress did “not address an obvious alternative explanation for Plaintiff’s injuries.” Judge Cherry pointed out that “multiple scientific and medical research articles” show “the most common spinal injury caused by a severe, head-first impact is the very mid-thoracic spine injury suffered by Plaintiff, and the literature explains the anatomical reasons for the injuries. All of the articles were published before Dr. Leatt invented the Leatt Brace®.”
Ryan Hughes, notwithstanding years of motocross racing, was excluded from testifying because he was “not qualified to express opinions on product design, product testing, medical causation, or accident reconstruction.” The court also ruled that Hughes “failed to employ a reliable methodology.” The court did not ignore Hughes’ qualifications “on the sport of motocross” but held that Hughes is not qualified to testify on “technical or scientific topics regarding the mechanism of Plaintiff’s injury.”
With both of the plaintiff’s liability experts excluded, the court turned to Leatt Corporation’s motion for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s claims of strict liability, breach of warranty, negligence, and failure to warn. Noting that “[t]he purpose of the Leatt Brace® ‘is to reduce neck forces in various combinations and at various times during a crash,’” the court described the product as designed to reduce “‘the incidence and severity of cervical spine trauma.’” The court held that the plaintiff produced no testimony “demonstrating that the Leatt Brace® deviated from its intended design” or that Brock Lyons’ thoracic injury was even “the type of catastrophic injury the Leatt Brace® is designed to protect against.”
Construing Brock Lyons’ description of his accident in a light “most favorable” to the plaintiff, and drawing “all legitimate inferences” in his favor, the court determined the evidence simply did not support the allegation that the Leatt-Brace® did not provide sufficient freedom of movement to the wearer.
Dismissal of Lyons is the second major victory notched during Stites & Harbison’s role as Leatt Corporation’s national product liability counsel. In April 2014, a trial team lead by John Tate obtained a defense verdict in U.S.D.C., N.D. Ohio, Cleveland Division, in a similar lawsuit brought by a teenager and his parents. The teenager suffered permanent paraplegia after a head-first crash on an indoor motocross track.
Dr. Chris Leatt, a South African physician, motorcycle enthusiast, and pilot, invented and patented the Leatt-Brace® to help reduce catastrophic neck injuries in extreme sports. He is chairman of the company’s board of directors and heads up the R&D department. In response to the summary judgment, Dr. Leatt said, “We have invested years of research, development, and testing into all of our products . . . . a growing number of user experiences and accident data show what we believe to be true, that the Leatt-Brace® is both effective and safe.”
Leatt Corporation CEO Sean Macdonald added, “It is always heartbreaking to hear about an athlete sustaining injury while participating in a beloved sport. These events further drive our team of passionate designers, engineers, and athletes to continually develop innovative protective gear.”