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Sheckells v. AGV Corp.

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Plaintiff sued Defendant for defective design and failure to warn after his son sustained permanent injuries when his helmet impacted the road after he lost control of his motorcycle. The trial court granted Defendant’s motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff appealed the failure to warn claim.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    A manufacturer is not liable for failure to warn when a product contains an obvious danger or of which the person using the product knows, or should know, is dangerous.

    Facts.

    John Sheckells lost control of his motorcycle after striking debris on the road and suffered permanent injuries when his helmet impacted the road. John’s father, Charles Sheckells (Plaintiff) sued the helmet’s manufacturer, AGV Corporation (Defendant), alleging that the helmet was defectively designed and that Defendant failed to provide warnings that the helmet would not provide protection from certain reasonably foreseeable impacts. Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment. In opposition to the motion, Plaintiff provided the expert testimony of Dr. Joseph L. Burton, the chief medical examiner for the City of Atlanta. Dr. Burton testified, in reference to the failure to warn claim, that helmet impact tests were conducted at speeds of only 15-20 miles per hour and that no motorcycle helmet on the market provided protection from injuries at speeds between 30-45 miles per hour. Dr. Burton further testified that the average helmet purchaser would not know those facts. The district court granted Defendant’s motion for summary judgment and Sheckell’s appealed only on the failure to warn claim.

    Issue.

    Whether a manufacturer is liable for failure to warn when a product contains an obvious danger or of which the person using the product knows, or should know, is dangerous.

    Held.

    No. The trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Defendant is affirmed with regard to the defective design claim, but is reversed on the failure to warn claim.

    Discussion.

    When Plaintiff purchased the AGV helmet, a warning label affixed to the inside stated that “some reasonably foreseeable impacts may exceed this helmet’s capability to protect against severe injury or death.” Additionally, the helmet package contained a notice that said “[y]our helmet is the single most important piece of safety equipment you own and should be treated as such.” It additionally stated, in capital letters, that “NO HELMENT, including your AGV helmet, can protect the wearer against all foreseeable impacts.” Defendant’s duty to warn is governed by Georgia law, which provides that a manufacturer is liable for failure to warn if it knows, or has reason to know, that the chattel is or is likely to be dangerous for the use for which it is supplied and the manufacturer fails to exercise reasonable care to inform users of a chattel’s dangerous condition. See Greenway v. Peabody Int’l Corp., 294 S.E.2d 541, 545-46 (Ga. 1982). There is no duty on a manufacturer to warn of an open or obvious danger associated with the use of a product. At his deposition, Dr. Burton testified that the average helmet purchaser would not be aware of the insufficient protection provided by all helmets at speeds of 30-45 miles per hour. The district court relied on Georgia case law in finding that “it is a matter of common knowledge that operating a motorcycle carries with it certain inherent dangers.” This case law, however, does not establish that safety precautions, such as a helmet, openly and obviously provide insignificant protection at speeds of 30-45 miles per hour. Here, despite the warnings affixed to the AGV helmet, it is not obvious that it only provided minimal protection against injury. It is likely that a helmet purchaser might expect more from “the single most important piece of safety equipment” that he owns. The evidence presented was sufficient to raise a genuine issue of fact regarding the open or obvious nature of this hazard. Thus, the district court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of Defendant on the issue of failure to warn. Defendant further claims that summary judgment was proper based on two other issues not reached by the district court. First, Defendant argues that Plaintiff did not read the warnings provided and thus, Defendant’s failure to warn was not a proximate cause of his injuries. However, John did not testify that he did not read the warnings, only that he did not remember doing so. John’s inability to remember may well be directly linked to the injuries sustained as a result of the accident. Regardless, John’s father, Charles, testified at his deposition that he discussed the warnings with John at the time the helmet was purchased. Second, Defendant argues that the warnings affixed to the helmet and in the notice to purchasers were adequate. Defendant specifically argues that the statement that no helmet “can protect the wearer against all foreseeable impacts” was adequate. Although the warning informs the purchaser that certain impacts exceed the helmet’s capacity to protect the wearer, it falls short of informing the wearer that the helmet will not provide protection at median and high speeds.


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