27 F.3d 731 (1st Cir. 1994), 93-2314, La Plante v. American Honda Motor Co., Inc.

Docket Nº:93-2314, 94-1015.
Citation:27 F.3d 731
Party Name:Arthur H. La PLANTE, Plaintiff, Appellee, v. AMERICAN HONDA MOTOR CO., INC., Defendants, Appellants.
Case Date:June 29, 1994
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

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27 F.3d 731 (1st Cir. 1994)

Arthur H. La PLANTE, Plaintiff, Appellee,


AMERICAN HONDA MOTOR CO., INC., Defendants, Appellants.

Nos. 93-2314, 94-1015.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

June 29, 1994

Argued April 8, 1994.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Andrew L. Frey, with whom Evan M. Tager, Adam C. Sloane, Mayer, Brown & Platt, Washington, DC, Gerald C. DeMaria, and

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Higgins, Cavanagh & Cooney, Providence, RI, were on brief, for defendants.

Mark B. Decof, with whom Vincent T. Cannon, Howard B. Klein, Decof & Grimm, Providence, RI, were on brief for plaintiff.

Hildy Bowbeer, Lezlie Ott Marek, Darin D. Smith and Bowman and Brooke, Minneapolis, MN, on brief for Product Liability Advisory Council, amicus curiae.

Before BREYER, [*] Chief Judge, BOWNES, Senior Circuit Judge, and STAHL, Circuit Judge.

BOWNES, Senior Circuit Judge.

Plaintiff-appellee Arthur LaPlante was rendered quadriplegic from a fall sustained while riding an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) designed, manufactured, and distributed by defendants-appellants Honda R & D Co., Ltd., Honda Motor Co., Ltd., and American Honda Motor Co., Inc. (collectively "Honda"). A jury found Honda liable and awarded plaintiff $9,652,000 in compensatory damages. This amount was reduced to $8,204,200 to account for plaintiff's comparative negligence. In a separate proceeding, the district court granted judgment as a matter of law for Honda on plaintiff's claim for punitive damages. Honda appeals from the judgment of liability and compensatory damages. Plaintiff cross-appeals on its punitive damages claim.

Finding reversible error, we vacate the judgment of liability and remand for a new trial as to all liability issues. If Honda is found liable on retrial, the award of damages stands. As for plaintiff's cross-appeal, the judgment of the district court is affirmed.



On Saturday, March 11, 1989, the course of Arthur LaPlante's life was dramatically and irreversibly altered. On that morning plaintiff, a twenty-four year-old army mechanic stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado, and three friends, Kelly Kallhoff, Randy Leib, and Mike Mohawk, ventured to nearby Pikes Peak in order to ride Kallhoff's three-wheel ATV, a 1982 Honda ATC200. This ATV is a three-wheeled motorized vehicle intended for off-road use. The vehicle has handlebar steering and large low-pressure tires, two in the rear, and one in front.

Plaintiff, who had never before ridden an ATV, was the third to ride after Kallhoff and Leib. After climbing to the top of a knoll, plaintiff began to descend at a speed of 5-10 m.p.h. When plaintiff was unable to negotiate a left-hand turn onto a twelve foot wide dirt road, he fell over a steep embankment and broke his neck, resulting in permanent paralysis from the neck down.

On January 11, 1991, plaintiff, who lived in Rhode Island before enlisting in the Army in 1983 and returned there after the accident, commenced this diversity action in the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island. The complaint delineated six causes of action: (1) breach of warranty; (2) false advertising; (3) negligent failure to advise how to operate the vehicle; (4) negligent failure to warn; (5) strict liability design defect; and (6) willful, wanton and reckless conduct (i.e., punitive damages). The trial was bifurcated so that the issue of punitive damages could be tried after the issues of liability and compensatory damages. The parties agree that the substantive law of Rhode Island governs the liability issues in this action.

A twenty-three day trial on liability and compensatory damages began in July 1993. At the close of plaintiff's case Honda moved for judgment as a matter of law. Only the claims for negligent failure to warn and strict liability design defect survived the motion. Ultimately the jury found Honda liable on these two claims, and awarded plaintiff $3,652,000 for medical expenses and lost wages, and $6,000,000 for physical injuries and pain and suffering. The jury also found that plaintiff was comparatively negligent, and reduced his award by fifteen percent.

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The district court denied Honda's motions for postjudgment relief.

The punitive damages phase of this action commenced on September 16, 1993. On the same day, at the close of plaintiff's evidence, the district court granted Honda's motion for judgment as a matter of law. These cross-appeals ensued.



A. Rhode Island's Subsequent Alteration Statute

Honda argues that the district court committed reversible error by not instructing the jury on the affirmative defense provided by Rhode Island's "subsequent alteration" statute, R.I.Gen.Laws Sec. 9-1-32 (1985).

Rhode Island law provides that "[n]o manufacturer or seller of a product shall be liable for product liability damages where a substantial cause of the injury, death, or damage was a subsequent alteration or modification." R.I.Gen.Laws Sec. 9-1-32(b) (emphasis added). The statute defines "subsequent alteration or modification" as

an alteration or modification of a product made subsequent to the manufacture or sale by the manufacturer or seller which altered, modified, or changed the purpose, use, function, design, or manner of use of the product from that originally designed, tested or intended by the manufacturer, or the purpose, use, function, design, or manner of use or intended use for which such product was originally designed, tested or manufactured.

Id. Sec. 9-1-32(a)(2). Honda contends that it presented evidence that the ATV ridden by plaintiff was altered or modified after its original sale, and therefore the trial court's failure to instruct the jury in accordance with Sec. 9-1-32 was reversible error. In support of its position Honda points to evidence that, at the time of the accident, the ATV's front brakes were inoperable, its rear brakes were faulty, its right rear tire was overinflated, its front forks were bent, and it pulled to the right.

Plaintiff's response is fourfold. First, he maintains that "lax maintenance" cannot constitute a "subsequent alteration or modification" under the statute. Rather, plaintiff insists that Sec. 9-1-32 was intended to "provide a defense when someone has deliberately altered a machine...." Next, he argues that the statute merely codified comment g of Section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts. Third, plaintiff contends that the jury charge adequately apprised the jurors of Rhode Island law. Finally, he argues that any error was harmless because Honda failed to present sufficient evidence that any of the alleged subsequent alterations was a substantial cause of plaintiff's injuries.

With respect to the scope of the statute, we have been unable to find any support for plaintiff's contention that the scope of Sec. 9-1-32 is limited to deliberate alterations, such as the removal of safety guards, and does not reach "alterations" or "modifications" that have resulted from inadequate maintenance. It is well settled under Rhode Island law that "[i]n the event that a statute is unambiguous, it is necessary for this court to apply its terms literally." Keenan v. Vose, 634 A.2d 866, 868 (R.I.1993); see also Costello v. American Univ. Ins. Co., 633 A.2d 260 (R.I.1993) (where statute "has a plain and unambiguous meaning ... this court is bound to construe the statute in accordance with that meaning"); Levesque v. Rhode Island Dep't of Transp., 626 A.2d 1286, 1289 (R.I.1993) (when statute is clear and unambiguous on its face courts "must give the words of the statute their plain and obvious meaning"). Here, plaintiff's proposed limitation directly contradicts the unambiguous and broad language of the statute. No exception has been drawn by the Rhode Island legislature for alterations resulting from inadequate maintenance as opposed to deliberate changes, and we can find no principled reason for reading such an exception into the statute.

Several states have enacted comparable statutes that specifically include "failure to observe routine maintenance" within the meaning of subsequent alteration or modification. See, e.g., Ky.Rev.Stat.Ann. Sec. 411.320(1) ("product alteration or modification shall include failure to observe routine care

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and maintenance, but shall not include ordinary wear and tear"); N.C.Gen.Stat. Sec. 99B-3 (same); see also Lamb By Shepard v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 1 F.3d 1184, 1188 (11th Cir.1993) (under Georgia, law failure to observe routine care and maintenance can constitute a material alteration or modification insulating defendant from liability for defective design). We have failed, however, to uncover a single statute that excludes inadequate maintenance from the category of subsequent alteration or modification for purposes of this defense. Finally, given the apparent purpose of Sec. 9-1-32, i.e., to protect manufacturers from unanticipated risks created by alterations or modifications occurring after a product leaves their control, we can see no reason why the Rhode Island legislature would provide a defendant with a complete defense where an ATV owner disconnected his front brakes, but not where the front brakes were inoperative due to the owner's failure to perform routine maintenance.

Next, plaintiff argues that Sec. 9-1-32 merely codifies the essence of comment g to Section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts which provides, in pertinent part, that "[t]he seller is not liable when he delivers the product in a safe condition, and subsequent mishandling or other causes make it harmful by the time it is consumed." Plaintiff points to no language in Sec. 9-1-32 to support this argument. Rather, plaintiff relies solely upon the presence of Sec. 9-1-32...

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