Bishop v. Triumph Motorcycles (Am.) Ltd., Civil Action 3:18-CV-186 (GROH)

CourtUnited States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Northern District of West Virginia
Docket NumberCivil Action 3:18-CV-186 (GROH)
PartiesSUSAN BISHOP, Individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of JOHN F. COULS, Decedent, Plaintiffs, v. TRIUMPH MOTORCYCLES (AMERICA) LIMITED, TRIUMPH MOTORCYCLES LIMITED, and FREDERICKTOWN YAMAHA, Defendants.
Decision Date22 September 2021

SUSAN BISHOP, Individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of JOHN F. COULS, Decedent, Plaintiffs,


Civil Action No. 3:18-CV-186 (GROH)

United States District Court, N.D. West Virginia, Martinsburg

September 22, 2021



Currently before the Court are the Defendants' Motion to Exclude Expert Testimony and Report of Byron Bloch [ECF No. 160] and Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No..268]. The matters have been fully briefed and are ripe for adjudication. In summary, the Defendants argue that (1) the Court should exclude the testimony and expert report of the Plaintiffs' liability expert, Byron Bloch, because he is not qualified to testify as an expert in this case, and his methodology fails the Daubert reliability test; and (2) without Bloch's testimony, the Plaintiffs cannot meet their burden of establishing a products liability claim against the Defendants, and thus, the Defendants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. For the reasons stated below, the motions are both GRANTED.


This case arises from a fatal motorcycle accident that occurred on November 19, 2016. The decedent, John Couls, died when his 2016 Triumph Bonneville T120 motorcycle (the “Couls motorcycle”) crossed the grass median into opposite traffic while traveling on Route 9 near Ranson, West Virginia. See ECF No. 263-3.

In January 2017, Defendant Triumph Motorcycles Limited (“TML”) issued a Safety Action Recall Notice of 2016 and 2017 Bonneville T120 motorcycles (the “T120 motorcycles”), including the Couls motorcycle. ECF No. 275-4 at 11. The T120 motorcycles were built with a newer handlebar grip than TML's previous models. Id. at 10. Beginning in October 2016, TML received warranty claims for the T120 motorcycles alleging the throttle was slow to return or would stick when the heated handlebar grips were activated. Id. at 9. After TML's Recall Committee found that “the symptom had the potential to affect the rider's ability to reduce speed in a fully controllable manner, ” TML decided to recall the T120 motorcycles. Id. at 10. TML designed a spacer for the T120 motorcycles to prevent the throttle sticking issue by allowing room for expansion of the handgrip when heated. Id. On February 16, 2017, approximately three months after the accident, Plaintiff Susan Bishop received a Safety Recall Notice that TML sent to the decedent. Id. at 2. The notice stated that there was “a defect which relates to motor vehicle safety in certain [T120 motorcycles], ” and the Couls motorcycle “may be affected.” Id.

On November 15, 2018, the Plaintiffs filed this products liability action. The Plaintiffs allege that the decedent's death was caused by a sudden, unintended acceleration (“UIA”) of the Couls motorcycle due to a defect in its heated handgrip system. ECF No. 34 ¶.30. The Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint, filed on February 28, 2019, asserts seven survival and seven wrongful death claims sounding in products liability against the Defendants: strict liability (Counts 1 & 2), defective design (Counts 3 & 4), manufacturing defect (Counts 5 & 6), failure to warn (Counts 7 &.8), breach of express warranty (Counts 9 & 10), breach of implied warranty of merchantability (Counts 11 & 12), [1] and loss of consortium (Counts 13 & 14). The Plaintiffs also seek punitive damages. Id. at 15.

The Defendants now move to exclude the opinions and report of the Plaintiffs' proposed liability expert, Byron Bloch, [2] and to grant summary judgment in favor of the Defendants.[3] The Court considers the arguments contained in the Defendants' motions, beginning with their motion to exclude expert testimony.


To establish the requisite causal link between the alleged defect in the Couls motorcycle's heated handgrips and the accident for their products liability claims, the Plaintiffs proffer the opinion of their liability expert, Byron Bloch. See ECF No. 275-4. The Defendants move the Court to exclude Bloch's expert testimony and report because (1) Bloch is not qualified to testify as an expert in this case, and (2) Bloch's opinions are not reliable under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 589 (1993). The Court considers these arguments in turn.

A. Expert Designation

Federal Rule of Evidence 702 provides that a witness may be qualified as an expert on the grounds of “knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education.” Fed.R.Evid. 702. “The ‘or' indicates that a witness may be qualified as an expert by any one of the five listed qualifications.” Garrett v. Desa Indus., Inc., 705 F.3d 721, 724 (4th Cir. 1983) (citing Dychalo v. Copperloy Corp., 78 F.R.D. 146, 149 (E.D. Pa. 1978)). The Fourth Circuit holds that Rule 702 is “broadly interpreted, ” with the “touchstone” inquiry being helpfulness to the trier of fact. Kopf v. Skyrm, 993 F.2d 374, 377 (4th Cir. 1993). Thus, “[t]estimony from an expert is presumed to be helpful unless it concerns matters within the everyday knowledge and experience of a lay juror.” Id. (citing Persinger v. Norfolk & Western Railway Co., 920 F.3d 1185, 1188 (4th Cir. 1990)).

The Defendants aver that Bloch is not qualified to testify as an expert on motorcycle design/motorcycle safety or causation on any of Rule 702's five grounds. First, the Defendants argue that Bloch “has no background or experience in motorcycle design, manufacture, assembly, sale, or distribution.” ECF No. 160-1 at 10. Second, the Defendants aver that Bloch lacks any formal education or training on motorcycle design and safety, stating, Bloch “has never worked as an engineer in the motorcycle industry, . . . does not even have [an] engineering degree, and has never taken a test to become a professional licensed engineer in any jurisdiction.” Id.

In response, the Plaintiffs argue that Bloch is qualified to testify as an expert due to his knowledge as a human factors engineer[4] and his experience working as an automobile safety consultant for over forty years. ECF No. 176-3 at 10-13. Bloch holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Industrial Design from the University of California, Los Angeles, with an emphasis in product design and human factors engineering. See ECF No. 275-3 at 5, p. 17:10-14. He also completed a graduate program for industrial design at UCLA. See ECF No. 272-8 at 5. From 1961 to 1966, Bloch worked as a human factors engineer for a number of companies, including Dunlap and Associates, Inc., a national human factors engineering consulting firm, and General Motors Corporation, which hired him to evaluate the safety, operability, and design factors regarding the handling, oversteer, and rollover properties of the Chevrolet Corvair. ECF No. 272-8 at 5. Since 1968, Bloch has testified as an automobile safety expert in approximately thirty motor vehicle “defective design” cases in both state and federal courts. Id. at 3-4.

Upon review of the written record, the Court finds that Bloch has specialized knowledge on motor vehicle safety design due to his experience as a human factors engineer, despite his lack of a formal engineering degree or license. See Rupert v. Ford Motor Co., 2015 WL 757402, at *3 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 23, 2015) (finding the same regarding Bloch's expert testimony in an automobile design defect products liability case). Bloch's knowledge of human factors engineering is not exclusive to automobile design safety. He has taken at least one human factors engineering course that was “motor vehicles inclusive, ” meaning that its principles applied to all vehicular modes of transportation, including motorcycles. See ECF No. 275-3 at 4, pp. 13-15. Additionally, as Bloch states in his deposition, analyzing a vehicle's controllability using human factors engineering applies the same principles in cases of both automobiles and motorcycles:

A. I would do [the same process] in cases where there are issues of controllability of a vehicle, whether it's runaway acceleration in a Toyota automobile, or whether it's runaway acceleration or unintended - sudden unintended acceleration . . . involving this Triumph motorcycle
The process that I go through is typically to think, you know, what did [the decedent] see, what did he feel, what time factors were involved, what's the road like what's the traffic like, what's the lighting like what are his opportunities to use his hands, his feet, what is the motorbike - motorcycle capabilities of concern

Id. at 53, pp. 209:13-210:2. The Defendants have not offered any basis that suggests motorcycle safety design is a more specialized field of knowledge than that of automobile safety design, [5] an area that approximately thirty state and federal courts have found Bloch is qualified to testify as an expert.[6] See Garrett, 705 F.2d at 724 (rejecting trial court's finding that “the only expert qualified to testify about the design of stud drivers” was “someone [in] the industry who actually designs them”).

Additionally, the Defendants argue Bloch is not qualified to testify as an expert on whether TML delayed in recalling 2016 and 2017 T120 motorcycles and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) reporting requirements because he has not worked on a motorcycle recall and has never worked for the NHTSA. ECF No. 1601 at 11. However, the record shows that Bloch has specialized knowledge of the recall process and the NHTSA's investigative procedure of unsafe vehicles due to his work as an automobile safety consultant. In 1983, Bloch testified as an expert on NHTSA's investigation process for vehicular safety defects before the U.S. House of Representatives. ECF No. 272-8 at 9. He has also...

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