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Helmet Safety – Court Permits Defense Expert Testimony on Impact of Helmet Usage (PA)

October 14, 2022

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In <em><a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Nelson-v.-American-Honda.pdf">Nelson v. American Honda</a> </em>2 1:18-cv-000210 (W.D. Pa. August 23, 2022), the Court denied  a Plaintiff’s motion to preclude testimony of an expert witness who would testify on the impact a helmet would have in a fatal all-terrain vehicle (ATV) accident.  Seventeen-year-old Dylan Fehlman died while driving an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) manufactured by American Honda Motor Company, Inc. (Honda) without a helmet. His body was discovered on top of railroad tracks with the ATV lying near him overturned.  Dylan's mother Jamie Nelson, as administratrix of his estate, sued Honda alleging several theories of liability. Dylan’s stepfather Christopher Nelson was the owner of the ATV. Mr. Nelson purchased the vehicle second-hand from a private seller and the previous owner did not give any written materials except a bill of sale. The ATV had a decal that instructed the user to read the owner’s manual and always wear a helmet. Mr. Nelson never inquired about obtaining a copy of the owner’s manual.

Plaintiff’s experts argued that the ATV had defects in the design, which caused or materially contributed to Dylan’s accident and death, and that Honda failed in its responsibility to adequately protect Dylan, and provide adequate warnings. Honda’s expert offered differing opinions to Mrs. Nelson. Most notably, a Honda expert placed blame on Dylan’s failure to wear a helmet.

In the ruling at issue, the Estate argued that scientific evidence that wearing a helmet lessens head injuries are already known to be true by lay people; therefore, an expert is not needed at trial. Furthermore, Mrs. Nelson argued that the testimony of the expert is not necessary and therefore not helpful to the jury. Honda argued that while the average juror may know that helmets lessen head injuries generally, expert testimony will enlighten as to the effects an available helmet would have had on Dylan's head injury.

Honda’s expert used the helmet that was available to Dylan on the day of the accident and performed testing regarding the particular circumstances of the accident. Using the Daubert test, the Court held that Honda’s expert had specialized knowledge, reliability of scientific evidence, and testimony relevant to the case, thus helmet testimony was related to the post-sale duty to warn claim in that Plaintiff failed to heed the decal warning to wear a helmet and admissible to the jury.

Thanks to Jean Scanlan for assistance on this post.  Should you have any questions, please contact <a href="mailto:tbracken@wcmlaw.com">Tom Bracken</a>.

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