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Stubblefield v. Suzuki Motor Corp.

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Northern Division

September 30, 2018

BRADLEY STUBBLEFIELD and KRISTAN STUBBLEFIELD PLAINTIFFS
v.
SUZUKI MOTOR CORP., and SUZUKI MOTOR OF AMERICA, INC. DEFENDANTS

          ORDER REGARDING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          HENRY T. WINGATE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         BEFORE THIS COURT is defendant Suzuki Motor Corp.'s Motion for Summary Judgment [Docket no. 228]. Suzuki Motor Corp. (hereinafter referred to as “SMC”) filed its motion for summary judgment and its supporting memorandum brief on October 2, 2017. [Docket nos. 228, 229]. Plaintiffs filed their response in opposition (including their memorandum brief) on October 20, 2017. [Docket no. 276]. SMC filed its rebuttal on October 27, 2017. [Docket no. 295]. SMC's motion for summary judgment relies in part on various Daubert motions which this court has recently denied. [Docket no. 318]. After a careful review of the submissions of the parties, arguments of counsel, and the relevant jurisprudence, this court rules as follows:

         I. JURISDICTION.

         On January 9, 2015, Plaintiffs filed their lawsuit in this federal forum alleging causes of action for: strict liability under Miss. Code § 11-1-63; common law negligence; common law negligent failure to warn; common law breach of warranty; and punitive damages.

         In their complaint, plaintiffs alleged that this court possess diversity of citizenship subject matter jurisdiction under United States Code Title 28, Section 1332[1].

         SMC has not challenged subject matter diversity jurisdiction; nevertheless, this court has an independent obligation to verify it possesses subject matter jurisdiction.[2]

         Plaintiffs herein are Bradley Stubblefield (hereinafter referred to as “B. Stubblefield”) and his wife, Kristan Stubblefield (hereinafter referred to as “K. Stubblefield”). The plaintiffs are both residents of the State of Mississippi.

         Defendant Suzuki Motor Corporation (hereinafter referred to as “SMC”) is a foreign corporation doing business in the State of Mississippi. SMC's principle place of business is 300 Takatsuka-cho, Minami-ku Hammamatsu-shi, SZK 432-8611 Japan.

         Defendant Suzuki Motor of America Inc. (hereinafter referred to as “SMAI”) is a California corporation doing business in the State of Mississippi.

         Plaintiffs alleged that the amount in controversy, minus costs and interest, exceed $75, 000, the statutory minimum in diversity of citizenship subject matter jurisdiction lawsuits.

         Accordingly, this court finds that it possesses diversity of citizenship subject matter jurisdiction over this lawsuit.

         II. FACTUAL BASIS

         a. General Facts

         B. Stubblefield, an experienced motorcycle rider with approximately twenty (20) years of experience, purchased a 2006 Suzuki GSX-R 1000 motorcycle (hereinafter referred to as “subject motorcycle”) from a private seller in the State of Georgia in 2010. B. Stubblefield drove to Georgia to conduct the transaction and drove the motorcycle home. After he had purchased the subject motorcycle, B. Stubblefield drove to work on it from the time he purchased it until the date of his accident. B. Stubblefield would not drive the motorcycle only on days where the weather did not safely permit him to do so - for example when icy conditions dominated the roadway or when severe storms were passing through the region. According to B. Stubblefield, this meant he drove the motorcycle four (4) out of every five (5) work days on average. From the date of purchase to the date of the accident, B. Stubblefield accumulated approximately 16, 000 miles on the subject motorcycle.

         When he bought the subject motorcycle, the seller did not provide the user manual that came with it. B. Stubblefield downloaded the user manual from the internet and read it. B. Stubblefield performed all of his own maintenance with the exception of replacing the tires, for which he had taken the bike to a tire store. B. Stubblefield testified that he followed SMC's recommended maintenance schedule, including the changing of the brake fluid.

         After he had purchased the subject motorcycle, B. Stubblefield purchased several aftermarket parts and replaced the stock parts on the subject motorcycle with these aftermarket parts. B. Stubblefield installed the aftermarket parts for cosmetic purposes. The aftermarket parts that B. Stubblefield installed include: front brake pads; HID[3] headlight low beam; ECU flash[4]; front brake and clutch levers[5]; riser plates[6]; exhaust pipes[7]; a frame slider[8]; and handlebars[9].

         In the morning of January 12, 2012, B. Stubblefield left his house located at 138 Prescott Ridge, Gluckstadt, Mississippi, to commute to work. B. Stubblefield was an architect who worked at JH&H Architects - who are currently located at 1047 N. Flowood Drive, Flowood, Mississippi. When he approached the onramp to Interstate 55 South at the Sowell Road interchange, B. Stubblefield attempted to enter the onramp. The parties agree that B. Stubblefield encountered gravel in the roadway before the concrete gore. After encountering the gravel, B. Stubblefield crossed the concrete gore, continued down an embankment, and his out-of-control vehicle ultimately came to an abrupt stop at the bottom of the ravine - some 13.6 feet below the roadway (a distance of approximately 127 feet). The subject motorcycle was laying on its left side pinning B. Stubblefield beneath it.

         There are two (2) eyewitnesses to the accident: Karen Richmond (hereinafter referred to as “Richmond”); and Gregory “Trent” Gordy (hereinafter referred to as “Gordy”).

         Richmond testified that she was turning onto the onramp in front of B. Stubblefield and yielded to a driver who was coming from the opposite direction to enter the interstate - apparently Gordy's vehicle. “The next thing I know, there is a motorcycle right here on my right coming up to my - driver's - on the left.” According to Richmond, B. Stubblefield was close enough that she could almost reach out and touch him. Richmond never saw B. Stubblefield's brake light. B. Stubblefield then travelled over the cement gore and down into the ravine. Richmond stopped her vehicle and went down to help. When she got to the bottom, the subject motorcycle was laying over on top of B. Stubblefield's left leg. B. Stubblefield was unconscious when Richmond first arrived and then he woke up and tried to move. Richmond told him to lay still and told Gordy, who had now come down into the ravine, to call 911. Richmond stayed with B. Stubblefield until the ambulance arrived.

         Gordy testified in his deposition that he never saw B. Stubblefield turn or wobble, that he continued straight over the concrete gore, went airborne, and down into the ravine.

         B. Stubblefield has no memory of the date of the accident; instead, B. Stubblefield offers testimony of what he would “typically” do.

Typically, when I'd come to that turn, that curve, I would have probably - I would have let off the gas for one, which would have slowed me down to an extent, and then I would have -- I would have used the brakes some before that curve, but I wouldn't have had to use them a lot because I was only going from -- you know, down maybe five, 10 miles an hour from the speed I was doing before the curve.· But I would have braked beforehand and then leaned into the curve.

[Docket no. 228-1, P. 129, LL. 9-20].

         Canton Police Department Officer Da'Varius Jackson (hereinafter referred to as “Officer Jackson”) responded to the scene to conduct an investigation. According to Officer Jackson, the accident occurred around 7:40 a.m. and that the road was wet and the weather was cloudy. According to Officer Jackson, he was not sure what had caused B. Stubblefield to lose control of his vehicle; however, Richmond and Gordy both allegedly told Officer Jackson that they had observed B. Stubblefield lose control of his motorcycle in the gravel on the roadway.

         B. Stubblefield's rate of speed is a contested point in this lawsuit: SMC says he was driving in excess of the speed limit; B. Stubblefield says that he was driving the speed limit. In either event, the speed limit is also a contested point between the parties.

         B. Stubblefield's father, Dan Stubblefield (hereinafter referred to as “D. Stubblefield”), received a call at work telling him about B. Stubblefield's accident and he went to the emergency room. After he left the hospital, D. Stubblefield went to the scene of the accident to retrieve the motorcycle. D. Stubblefield first testified that he did not remember whether he had used the front brake on the day of the accident to maneuver the motorcycle onto his truck, but later qualified that answer to say that he thought the front brake was “mushy”. When he had loaded the subject motorcycle onto his truck, D. Stubblefield took it to his home garage and stored it for B. Stubblefield.

         He went again to the scene on January 18, 2012 to take pictures of the accident scene. While at the scene, D. Stubblefield did not see a tire skid in the roadway that led to the concrete gore.

         Some months after the subject accident, D. Stubblefield rode the subject motorcycle around his neighborhood to test it so that B. Stubblefield could sell it. During that test ride, D. Stubblefield said the front brake stopped the subject motorcycle, but not as quickly as he would have liked.

         On September 4, 2014, the parties conducted a mutual inspection of the subject motorcycle. During that inspection, the parties took measurements and pictures of the subject motorcycle. The parties also tested the front brake lever to determine how much pressure the parties needed to apply to engage the brakes.

         Sometime after that testing, plaintiffs' attorney, Mike Malouf, Jr. (hereinafter referred to as “Attorney Malouf”), consulted with an expert motorcycle rider, Preston Lind (hereinafter referred to as “P. Lind”), who rode the subject motorcycle. Attorney Malouf did not contact counsel for the defendants to inform them about the testing. Attorney Malouf and P. Lind were the only persons present during the secret testing. Afterwards, P. Lind allegedly told his mother, Jennifer Lind (hereinafter referred to as “J. Lind”) that the subject motorcycle functioned as expected and that whoever wrecked the subject motorcycle did not know what he was doing. Later, in May, 2015, P. Lind died before the defendants became aware of the secret test ride.

         The parties set August 5, 2016, as the date for a second round of joint testing on the subject motorcycle. After the parties had set the date, defendants learned about the secret test ride. After searching for P. Lind the parties found out that P. Lind was deceased. This court subsequently ordered the deposition of Attorney Malouf.

         At the August 5, 2016 joint test, the parties inspected the subject motorcycle again and disassembled the FBMC from the subject motorcycle. After they had done so, the parties' expert witnesses noticed corrosion and a gel-like substance in the brake fluid. The parties agree that no one had changed the brake fluid since the date of the accident.

         The parties disagree about what the testing showed.

         b. Expert Witnesses

          i. Todd Hoover

          SMC designated Todd Hoover (hereinafter referred to as “Hoover”) as an expert in accident reconstruction and rider interaction. The parties expect Hoover to testify that the following occurred:

1. B. Stubblefield was travelling approximately 48 to 55 mph when he approached the interstate on-ramp, and that speed was in excess of the speed limit of 30 mph.
2. B. Stubblefield braked and steered his vehicle inappropriately under the prevailing road conditions, and that B. Stubblefield could have stopped with only the rear brake had B. Stubblefield been travelling the speed limit.
3. B. Stubblefield's front brake was fully functional at the time of the crash.
4. B. Stubblefield's lack of attention to the road and due caution contributed to his accident.
5. B. Stubblefield could have slowed his vehicle and maneuvered into position behind Richmond's vehicle had he been driving safely.
6. Multiple decisions and driver error contributed to B. Stubblefield's accident: excessive speed; high risk behavior by attempting to pass Richmond on her driver's side; and inappropriate brake application.
7. Brake testing was conducted where plaintiffs' rider added a ½ block to the front brake lever. This procedure had no relevance and merely impeded the front brake lever travel distance.
8. Brake testing showed that both front and rear brakes were ...

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