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Sixth District: Damages Award of $2.76 Million for Trike Crash Supported by Evidence

An appeals court recently upheld a $2.76 million verdict against a Cecil automotive parts shop, which sold a custom-made motorcycle axle shaft that fractured, leading to a lethal crash.

The axle shaft was designed specifically for a customer’s three-wheeled motorcycle called a trike. The Sixth District Court of Appeals determined that the jury reasonably concluded the axle shaft was an auto part and that the shop was an auto parts merchant. The jury also had evidence that the shop knew that the couple who ordered and bought the custom-made axle shaft relied on the shop’s expertise in building the component, the court ruled.

The jury awarded damages to the estate of the man who was killed when the trike shaft broke and to his wife, who was seriously injured in the accident.

Axle Shaft Breaks, Causing Deadly Accident
James Worman went to Hart’s Machine Services in the Paulding County town of Cecil to discuss having the shop build a custom-made axle shaft for a trike he was assembling. Hart’s enlisted the help of Michael Jarzembski, who constructed the part.

On May 8, 2011, James and Pamela Worman were riding the trike on State Route 18 when the rear axle shaft snapped on the right side, causing the right tire to separate from the motorcycle. James Worman lost control of the trike and crashed into a ditch off the road. Both had life-threatening injuries and were taken by helicopter to a Fort Wayne, Indiana, hospital.

Pamela Worman recovered partially after lengthy treatment. James Worman died from his injuries about a year later in June 2012.

Pamela Worman and Carl Wright, administrator for James Worman’s estate, filed a civil lawsuit later that year against Hart’s and Jarzembski. (It was subsequently learned that Jarzembski was bankrupt.) Before trial, the court dismissed the Wormans’ product liability claims. The court concluded that the axle shaft wasn’t a “product,” as defined in the Ohio Product Liability Act, and that neither Hart’s nor Jarzembski was a “manufacturer” or “supplier” under the law.

However, the court stated the legal claims for negligence and breach of warranty could go forward to trial. In May 2015, the jury found in favor of the Wormans on two issues and awarded $2,761,228.15 in damages. Hart’s appealed to the Sixth District Court of Appeals.

Product Liability Law Doesn’t Apply
Judge Stephen A. Yarbrough explained in the Sixth District’s opinion that, contrary to Hart’s position, the Wormans’ lawsuit asserting negligence and breach of warranty could proceed even after the trial court dismissed the product liability claims. While a provision in the product liability law invalidates certain types of claims in product liability lawsuits, the trial court had dismissed the Wormans’ product liability case so their suit based on different laws was allowed, the court ruled.

Auto Shop Had Implied Warranties with Couple
On the jury verdict, the evidence supported the conclusions that Hart’s failed to meet its implied warranty with the Wormans for a “merchantable” axle shaft, Judge Yarbrough reasoned. Hart’s had argued the project was the only time the company had sold this type of custom-made item and that it never sold parts for trikes or for motorcycles generally. It wasn’t a merchant for motorcycle parts, the owner contended, though he also testified he saw no difference between motorcycle and auto components. The Sixth District ruled that a trike axle shaft is an auto part and that Hart’s is a merchant for auto supplies given that 40 percent of its business involves sales of these items.

The Sixth District also upheld the jury’s determination that Hart’s had violated an implied warranty that the axle shaft would be suitable for the intended purpose. Hart’s knew the Wormans planned to install the axle shaft on their trike, Judge Yarbrough explained. The Wormans had initially asked Hart’s to repair another axle that had broken. The owner of Hart’s told them a new shaft was needed because welding the old one would weaken it. The court ruled that Hart’s had reason to know the Wormans were depending on the shop’s expertise. The couple “relied upon Hart[’]s, a reputable auto parts dealer, to provide them with an acceptable axle shaft for their trike,” Judge Yarbrough wrote.

Judges Mark L. Pietrykowski and Arlene Singer joined Judge Yarbrough’s opinion, which affirmed the judgment of the Fulton County Common Pleas Court.

Wright v. Harts Machine Services, Inc., 2016-Ohio-4758
Civil Appeal From: Fulton County Common Pleas Court
Judgment Appealed From Is: Affirmed
Date of Judgment Entry on Appeal: June 30, 2016

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