Garfield County family wins lawsuit against motorcycle manufacturer
July 12, 2002
A Garfield County court ruling in a case argued by Aspen attorney Jeremy Bernstein has led to the recall of 3,000 motorcycles from a national motorcycle manufacturer.
The recall stems from a motorcycle accident in 1999 that killed a Rifle resident. Polaris Industries Inc. is recalling all “Victory” motorcycles produced between 1998 and 1999 because of a defect in the machine’s throttle that occurs when a screw easily comes loose. Roger Tittle, 43, was killed while driving his new Victory motorcycle in July 1999 when the throttle stuck. He struck a signpost on a rural road in Garfield County.
Tittle’s wife, Melissa, and children, Jason and Amy, successfully sued Polaris for product liability and negligence. Bernstein represented the Tittles in Garfield County District Court.
“The lesson in this case is that a widow and her two kids with determination can take on a major corporation and hold that corporation accountable for their actions,” he said. “That was their mission all along. When I called Melissa with the ruling she said something like, ‘Well, this is for Roger.'”
Judge T. Peter Craven ruled in favor of the family on July 2, after a weeklong trial in June. The family will collect $840,870 from Polaris for economic losses after Tittle’s death, although Bernstein said along with interest the total comes to $1,081,167.65, along with legal fees of $200,000.
Bernstein also pointed out Polaris, based in Minnesota, will have to spend about $130,000 replacing parts in 3,000 motorcycles that have already been sold. The company had stopped production on the bike in the month before Tittle’s death, which Judge Craven said proved Polaris was aware of the defect well before sending notices to dealers and to individual buyers.
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In fact, Bernstein pointed out at trial that Melissa Tittle received a notice of the defect about two weeks after her husband’s death.
He said the defect primarily includes a screw that the company held in place with glue, rather than the “spinning” process, in order to save minimal production costs. But the glue used was not resistant to heat or vibration, and when the screw comes loose, the motorcycle continues to accelerate rather than slow down.
Roger Tittle lost control of his motorcycle when this occurred in the accident that killed him.
“Basically, for the cost of spinning a screw worth half a penny in place, this man died,” Bernstein said. “That’s what it came down to. And the impact on the family was enormous. Roger and Melissa had been married for 22 years, and their son Jason was three weeks away from leaving for college. Jason’s sister Amy was 14 years old and really close to her father.”
The Tittle family settled claims with Walbro Corporation Inc., the company that produced the engine part in question, for a confidential amount of money. They also settled with Pro Sports Polaris Inc., the dealership in Glenwood Springs where Melissa purchased the motorcycle for her husband as a retirement gift.
Bernstein said two witnesses, a nearby motorist and a woman on a nearby ranch, testified hearing the sound of the full-opened throttle just before Roger Tittle’s accident. According to court documents, Polaris first put a production motorcycle on hold after finding a problem with the throttle mechanism in May 1999.
After further testing, the company halted production of the Victory motorcycle engines on July 8, but did not notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the problem until July 26, and then waited until Aug. 5 to notify dealers of the defect with a safety recall bulletin.
“It was a very difficult case, and I’d never want to take a family through this,” Bernstein said. “We were up against a huge Fortune 500 corporation that makes ATVs, snowmobiles, personal watercraft and motorcycles. They defend every case, and they do not settle.”
[Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]