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Road Injury Prevention & Litigation Journal
Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.
June 1, 1997
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Louisiana DOTD Liable for Not Warning Bicyclists of Danger on Bridge; Bicycle Manufacturer's Warnings Found Adequate

Robert Delphen received severe injuries when he struck a two-to-three-inch change in elevation on the deck of Louisiana's Chef Menteur drawbridge and was thrown from the bicycle he was riding. Delphen and his wife sued the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) for negligent maintenance of the roadway. The plaintiffs also brought suit for product liability against the dealer/seller of the bicycle, the alleged distributor of the bicycle's quick-release wheel mechanism, and the manufacturer of the bicycle (Bridgestone).

The dealer/seller and the alleged distributor settled out of court. A jury trial in the District Court, Parish of Orleans found in favor of the bicyclist and his wife, allotting 45 percent fault to DOTD, 30 percent to Bridgestone, and 25 percent to Delphen; the jury awarded $463,524.52 total damages. The trial court adopted the damage award but amended the percentages of comparative negligence to the three parties. DOTD and Bridgestone appealed, and the plaintiffs responded. The Court of Appeal of Louisiana, Fourth Circuit affirmed the finding that DOTD was negligent and reversed the finding of liability against Bridgestone. Assigning 50 percent fault to DOTD and 50 percent to the plaintiff, the court concurred on the amount of the damage award.

The Incident

Robert Delphen borrowed Amy Newton's ten-speed racing bicycle on June 27, 1990. The bicycle was in storage at Amy's friend's home, and the plaintiffs were living in that friend's home. Delphen later testified that he attempted to adjust the front wheel of the bicycle before he rode it that day, because the wheel had wobbled when he rode the bicycle before.

Delphen rode the bicycle across the Chef Menteur Highway Bridge. On the bridge, a discontinuity in elevations where the movable portion of the bridge met the fixed portion created an edge dropoff from two to three inches in height. Striking this edge, the plaintiff fell from the bicycle and his face struck the roadway. His facial injuries required seven surgeries. He later claimed the existence of the edge and the fact that the front wheel separated from the bicycle when it hit the edge were the proximate causes of his fall and injuries.

Delphen and his wife sued DOTD for negligence in maintaining the bridge. They also sued Cleary Bicycle, Moped, and Go-Cart Center, Suntour, U.S.A., and Bridgestone--the dealer who sold the bicycle, the alleged distributor of the wheel-release mechanism, and the manufacturer of the bicycle respectively. The dealer and the distributor settled before trial, leaving DOTD and Bridgestone as defendants.

Trial Court Decision

In its case against DOTD, the plaintiffs contended the edge was a severe hazard that DOTD was negligent in not correcting or, at a minimum, calling to the attention of bicyclists with a warning sign. In the case against Bridgestone, the plaintiffs claimed the design of the bicycle was defective in not providing a secondary retention device to keep the wheel from coming off when the quick release failed. Also, the Delphens said the manufacturer did not provide adequate warnings.

The jury found DOTD 45 percent negligent, Bridgestone 30 percent negligent, and Delphen 25 percent negligent. The jury awarded damages in the following amounts:

Robert Delphen

$100,000.00 for past and future physical pain and suffering $50,000.00 for past and future mental pain and anguish $92,524.52 for past and future medical expenses $98,000.00 for past and future lost wages $50,000.00 for past and future permanent injury $20,000.00 for loss of enjoyment of life

Gina Delphen

$50,000.00 for past and future loss of consortium

Entering a judgment, the trial court adopted the damage amounts listed above. The trial court, however, set aside the jury's verdict in assessing fault. On February 18, 1994, the trial court increased the assessment to DOTD from 45 percent to 50 percent. Accordingly, the court decreased Delphen's fault from 25 to 20 percent. On April 19, 1994, the trial court responded to a plaintiffs' motion by increasing Bridgestone's fault from 30 to 40 percent and reducing Delphen's fault from 20 percent to 10 percent.

Appellate Court Decision

On appeal, DOTD and Bridgestone made three claims: (1) the trial court erred in granting the plaintiffs' motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and, therefore, changing the apportioning of fault, (2) the trial court's instructions to the jury regarding product liability were incorrect, and (3) the damage award was incorrect. Moreover, DOTD argued Delphen breached his duty as a user of the roadway and did not act with reasonable care; therefore, Delphen's own actions were the proximate cause of his injuries. And Bridgestone argued the Delphens did not prove the bicycle was defective and did not prove the manufacturer had not provided adequate warnings. Both DOTD and Bridgestone claimed damage awards were excessive. The plaintiffs responded that they had met their burden of proof and damage awards were insufficient.

Liability of DOTD

To prove negligence by a public entity, the plaintiffs had to show:

(1) that the entity owned or had custody of the thing that caused damage; (2) that the thing was defective in that it created an unreasonable risk of harm to others; (3) that entity had actual or constructive knowledge of the defect or the risk of harm imposed thereby and failed to take corrective measures within a reasonable time; and (4) causation.
Faulkner v. State, Dept. of Transp. & Development, 25, 857 (La.App. 2d Cir. 10/21/94) 645 So.2d 268, writ denied, 94-2901 (La. 1/27/95), 649 So.2d 390.

While "DOTD is not the guarantor of safety for travelers," the appellate court pointed out DOTD's duty to keep the roadway in reasonably safe condition, to be aware of unsafe conditions, and to correct or warn of unsafe conditions. The trial court established that DOTD had custody and control of Chef Menteur Bridge and that DOTD knew of the hazard presented by the misaligned edge on the bridge. DOTD, according to the trial court, should have modified the bridge or, "at the very least," put up warning signs or prohibited bicycles from using the bridge. DOTD stated in its brief that the bridge was designed to provide reasonable safety for vehicles but was not designed for bicycles.

The appellate court did not necessarily agree that DOTD should have undertaken the expense of modifying the bridge to safely handle bicycle traffic. However, the court did find DOTD liable for not posting warning signs; therefore, the court upheld the trial court's judgment against DOTD.

Product Liability of Bridgestone

The appellate court's reversal on Bridgestone centered around the trial court's instructions to the jury on product liability. Those instructions were:

The manufacturer of a product shall be liable to a claimant for damage proximately caused by an unreasonably dangerous product when such damage arose from a reasonably anticipated use of the product by the claimant or another person. . . . 'Reasonably anticipated use' of the product means a use or handling of a product that the product's manufacturer should reasonably expect of an ordinary person in the same or similar circumstances. Normal use includes reasonable, foreseeable misuse, and a manufacturer is obligated to take into account such misuse in designing its product. . . .

These instructions, according to the appellate court, "allowed the jury to infer that the term 'reasonable anticipated use' constitutes 'normal use,' including all 'foreseeable misuses.'" The appeals court pointed out the Louisiana products liability statute provides "that the manufacturer is not responsible for accounting for every conceivable foreseeable use of a product." The court cited cases where courts did not hold manufacturers liable when their products were used in ways the manufacturers could not reasonably have been expected to anticipate:

In Myers v. American Seating Co. (93 1350 (La.App. 1st Cir. 5/20/94), 637 So.2d 771, writs denied, 94-1569 (La. 10/7/94), 644 So.2d 631 & 94-1633 (La. 10/7/94, 644 So.2d 632), the court found that standing on the rear portion of a folding chair was not a reasonably anticipated use. The court concluded that the danger of standing on a folding chair was obvious to a reasonable person, and the manufacturer was not held liable for making an unreasonably dangerous product or providing inadequate warning.

In Daigle v. Audi of America, Inc. (598 So.2d 1304 (La.App. 3d Cir.), writ denied, 604 So.2d 1306 (La.1992)), the plaintiff reached beyond the flare of a vehicle's hood to locate a latch when the vehicle's engine was running and when he did not know where he was reaching. This was determined not to be a reasonably anticipated use, and the vehicle manufacturer was not held liable.

In London v. MAC Corporation of America (44 F.3d 316 (5th Cir.1995)), a plaintiff fell and was injured when he stood on the gearbox of a shredder while attempting to repair it. Granting the defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law, the trial court found that standing on the shredder's gearbox was not a reasonably anticipated use.

Under the jury instructions given in the present case, the product use in the three cases described above could have been defined as foreseeable rather than not foreseeable--most likely changing the verdict in all three cases. The appellate court felt the present jury instructions resulted in a misapplication of the Louisiana products liability statute and, therefore, represented an error by the trial court.

The appeals court then addressed facts in the present case that spoke to Bridgestone's being able to foresee Delphen's use of their bicycle and the resulting injury. The bicycle Delphen borrowed was a precision racing model equipped with a quick- release mechanism on the front axle hub. The quick release served racers well for rapid removal and replacement of tires, and Delphen knew the specialized bicycle had the quick-release feature. Delphen testified that he was not familiar with the operation of the release mechanism and did not know how to mount the front wheel properly. Nevertheless, he attempted to adjust the front wheel because he had noticed that it wobbled. The court argued that Delphen knew the bicycle was specially designed for sophisticated bicyclists and he should have taken responsibility for learning how to fix the front wheel before making an unschooled adjustment and driving onto the bridge. The plaintiff's actions in this case were, according to the appellate court, "not a reasonably anticipated use of the product."

The plaintiffs also argued that Bridgestone was liable because the manufacturer did not use a secondary retention device on the quick-release mechanism when that device was available at the time they made the bicycle. However, the defendant pointed out that the only such device available at the time was patented by Schwinn; no feasible device existed for Bridgestone to use when they made this bicycle.

Finally, the plaintiffs contended Bridgestone's instructions for the bicycle were inadequate. At trial, Bridgestone's expert showed that the bicycle's manual described the quick release and its use and gave general safety instructions, including a warning about the danger of roadway obstacles. Amy Newton verified that she had received the manual with the bicycle and that the instructions were adequate. It would not be feasible for the manufacturer to provide all applicable instructions and warnings for a complex, technical bicycle on the body of the bicycle. It was the responsibility of the user, who knew this was a complex machine, to seek and follow the provided manual. Delphen did not do this, and the court found his use of the bicycle could not reasonably be anticipated. Therefore, the court concluded Bridgestone had no liability where they could not have reasonably anticipated Delphen's use of the bicycle and where they had provided instructions and warnings in the bicycle's manual. The appeals court reversed the trial court's finding against Bridgestone.

Damage Amounts

Citing Youn v. Maritime Overseas Corp (623 So.2d 1257 (La.1993), cert. denied, Maritime Overseas Corp. v. Youn, --- U.S. ---, 114 S.Ct.1059, 127 L.Ed.2d 379 (1994)), the appellate court noted that the trial court's discretion is "great" and even "vast" when awarding damages. It was up to the trier of fact to evaluate Delphen's injuries and their effects and make a reasonable assessment. Taking up each category of awarded damages, the appellate court decided that none of the amounts clearly represented an abuse of the jury's discretion. The appeals court confirmed the amounts, neither decreasing them as requested by the defendants nor increasing them as requested by the plaintiffs.

In summary, the appellate court reversed the trial court's decision against Bridgestone and found the manufacturer had no liability in this case. Finding DOTD negligent, the court allocated 50 percent fault to DOTD and 50 percent to Delphen for his comparative negligence. The court left the amount of the damage awards in place.

[For further reference, see Robert Delphen and Gina M. Delphen v. the Department of Transportation and Development, State of Louisiana, et al. (La.App. 4 Cir. 1995) in West Publishing Vol. 657 Southern Reporter, 2d Series, 328]

Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.

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