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Suzuki Motor of America, Inc. v. Johns

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division

June 28, 2019

JOHNS et al.; JOHNS et al.;

          MILLER, P.J., RICKMAN and REESE, JJ.

          RICKMAN, JUDGE.

         In this product liability action, a jury returned a verdict and awarded damages in favor of Adrian Johns and against Suzuki Motor Corporation ("SMC") and Suzuki Motor of America, Inc. ("SMAI") (collectively, "Suzuki") on Johns's claims for strict product liability based upon a design defect, breach of a continuing duty to warn, and negligent recall, stemming from injuries that he suffered when the front brakes on his Suzuki motorcycle failed. The jury also found in favor of Johns's wife and awarded her damages on a claim for loss of consortium. The jury attributed 49 percent fault to Johns and the remaining 51 percent fault to the collective defendants, and the trial court apportioned the damage award accordingly.

          In Case Number A19A0108, Suzuki asserts that the trial court erred by failing to dismiss SMAI from the lawsuit on the basis that it did not assume liability for Johns's claims when it acquired the assets of its predecessor corporation in bankruptcy; failing to enter a directed verdict on each of Johns's three claims; and admitting irrelevant and unduly prejudicial evidence of a recall and evidence of other incidents for improper purposes. In Case Number A19A0109, the Johnses assert on cross-appeal that the trial court erred by apportioning the damage award on Johns's strict liability claim and on his wife's loss of consortium claim, which also resulted in the court declining to award pre-judgment interest pursuant to OCGA § 51-12-14 (a). For the following reasons, we affirm in both cases.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, [1] the evidence shows that SMC is a Japanese corporation that designed and manufactured the motorcycle at issue in this lawsuit. SMAI is an American wholesale distributor and wholly-owned subsidiary of SMC, and although it did not distribute Johns's motorcycle, it acquired the assets of the wholly-owned SMC subsidiary that did through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding.

          In 2005, Johns, who had been driving motorcycles for over 20 years, purchased a 2006 Suzuki GSX-R1000. On August 9, 2013, Johns was preparing for a weekend motorcycle ride and conducted a pre-ride inspection on his bike. His pre-ride inspections routinely included checking the tires, lights, fluids, and brakes. On this particular occasion, Johns noticed that the front brake felt "spongy." He called his father-in-law, a certified motorcycle mechanic, who, after inquiring about the brake fluid, instructed him to "bleed the brakes," a process that involved draining the air out of the brake line until a "tight brake" was achieved. Johns did so, and the problem appeared to be resolved. He nevertheless decided to forgo the longer weekend ride, instead limiting himself to short test drives. The front brake seemed to function normally.

         The following Monday morning, August 12, 2013, Johns decided to drive the motorcycle to work. After doing his usual pre-ride inspection, he exited his neighborhood and drove approximately 20 miles without noticing any problem with his front brake. At some point, however, Johns was traveling at approximately 20 miles per hour on a highly-trafficked road when the tractor-trailer in front of him began to slow down. As Johns attempted to do the same, he experienced a total failure of his front brake. Boxed in by the cars around him, Johns was forced to rely entirely on his rear brake, causing his motorcycle to skid and swerve, and he ultimately hit the curb and was thrown from his bike. Johns lost consciousness for a period of time and suffered serious injuries to his back and hand in the accident. He subsequently underwent spinal fusion surgery and a separate surgery to repair his hand, and spent over two months in the hospital and at rehabilitation facilities relearning how to walk and use his hand again.

         While still in the hospital, Johns relayed to his father-in-law that the front brake on his motorcycle had failed. Johns's wife and father-in-law subsequently picked up the bike from the tow lot and confirmed that the front brake did not work.

         Within a couple of days of returning home from rehabilitation, Johns received a recall notice from Suzuki warning him of a dangerous safety defect in his motorcycle's front brake master cylinder. The recall notice warned that a condition in the front brake master cylinder of GSX-R motorcycles may "lead to corrosion of the break piston" and result in a "spongy" brake. It further warned that "[o]perating your motorcycle without having the recall service performed may increase the risk of a crash." Johns testified that, had he received the recall notice before his accident, he would not have driven his motorcycle without first having had the service performed.

         Johns filed the instant lawsuit against Suzuki, alleging claims of strict liability based upon a design defect, negligent failure to warn, and negligent recall; he sought both compensatory and punitive damages. Johns's wife also filed a claim for loss of consortium.

         During the ensuing trial, Johns presented evidence in support of his theory that a defect in the design of his motorcycle's master cylinder caused the front brake failure, that the defect was the same defect as that targeted by Suzuki's subsequently issued recall, and that Suzuki had notice of the issue months before it notified the public and, indeed, prior to Johns's accident. As evidence of the defect, Johns presented testimony from an expert witness who testified that the design of the master cylinder resulted a steel spring being in direct contact with a zinc piston, and that it had been long understood that a combination of those metals in the presence of water, such as that commonly present in brake fluid, created a "galvanic couple" resulting in a corrosion of the piston. The expert testified that the corrosion produces various byproducts, including gas and zinc formate crystals, which can then interfere with normal brake operation. The expert also testified that the corrosion issue could be avoided by placing a rubber insulator between the two metals, as was done in the rear brake master cylinder of Johns's motorcycle.

          After Johns's front brake was tested, disassembled, and inspected, the expert opined that the steel-zinc reaction in the front brake master cylinder did indeed create a corrosive byproduct that included gas and crystallized zinc formate, and that a zinc formate crystal disrupted a seal in the master cylinder which created a "leak path" which misdirected the flow of brake fluid and resulted in the total brake failure that Johns experienced.

         In addition, Johns used evidence of the recall itself, as well as internal documents illustrating the circumstances surrounding the recall decision, as evidence not only of the defective design, but also of Suzuki's knowledge of the defect. Johns also presented evidence of two unrelated but similar incidents.

         In its defense, Suzuki denied that any kind of malfunction of the motorcycle's front brake contributed to Johns's accident, instead asserting that the accident and resulting injuries were caused by Johns's negligent operation of the bike at the time of the accident. As an alternative theory, Suzuki contended that even if Johns did experience brake failure in the manner alleged by his expert witness, the corrosive condition existed only as a result of Johns's admitted failure to change the brake fluid for eight years in contravention of the owners manual's instruction that the fluid be replaced every two years. Suzuki also maintained throughout the trial that its master cylinder recall was entirely unrelated to Johns's claims. Suzuki asserted that the defective condition targeted by the recall was the master cylinder's inability to purge gas produced as a byproduct of the corrosive piston, a condition which was exacerbated by Johns's failure to change the brake fluid, which resulted in increased moisture and, consequently, increased gas production. Suzuki contended that the defect would result in a "spongy" brake, but never in a total loss of a motorcycle's front brake.

         The jury found in favor of Johns on each of his claims and awarded him $10.5 million in compensatory damages, but declined to award punitive damages. When asked to assign the relative percentages of fault to the parties, the jury assessed 49 percent fault to Johns, 45 percent fault to SMC, and 6 percent fault to SMAI. The jury also found in favor of Johns's wife on her claim for loss of consortium and awarded her an additional $2 million in damages. The trial court apportioned the damage award pursuant to OCGA § 51-12-33 in accordance with the percentage of fault attributed to each party. Suzuki filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or, alternatively, for a new trial, which the trial court denied. This appeal follows.

         Case No. A19A0108

         1. SMAI asserts that this Court should enter judgment in its favor on all claims because it was never a proper party to this case. Prior to trial, the trial court granted summary judgment to SMAI on Johns's design defect claim after concluding that it was not a manufacturer for the purposes of that action, which was premised on strict liability; however, the trial court denied summary judgment to SMAI on the remaining two claims premised, in part, on successor liability. SMAI argues that it should have been dismissed from the lawsuit in its entirety because it "had nothing to do with the development, manufacture, distribution, or sale of Johns's motorcycle," since it did not begin operations until seven years after Johns purchased the motorcycle in question.

         We need not even consider the substance of SMAI's argument because it simply is not possible at this point for this Court to unwind the jury's verdict as to any single defendant. In the charge given to the jury, the term "manufacturer" was not defined, and the charge referred to SMC and SMAI collectively as "manufacturers" and "defendants" throughout. Likewise, the verdict form, by express consent of the parties, did not distinguish between the "Defendants" when asking the jury to determine the liability associated with any claim.

         Indeed, during the trial court's conference on the drafting of the verdict form, the trial court expressed concern about the challenges it faced because of the different parties and different claims. The following colloquy transpired:

THE COURT: [M]y fear is that we get . . . a verdict that's not a straight defense verdict, trying to figure out what the jury is telling me to put in a judgment . . . if I can't figure out what they mean, we've got a problem. So that is why I've taken so long in doing the verdict form.
[DEFENSE]: We're happy to have the Court to just do one defendant.
[THE COURT]: . . . [Y]ou want me to combine the defendants here at ...

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