Defries v. Yamaha Motor Corp.

Decision Date26 October 2022
Docket NumberE073917
Citation84 Cal.App.5th 846,300 Cal.Rptr.3d 670
Parties Chad DEFRIES, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. YAMAHA MOTOR CORPORATION, U.S.A., Defendant and Respondent.
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

Certified for Partial Publication.*

Morris Law Firm, James A. Morris, and Barbara M. Sharp, for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Snell & Wilmer, Todd E. Lundell, Daniel S. Rodman and Jing (Jenny) Hua, Costa Mesa, for Defendant and Respondent.


Plaintiff and appellant Chad Defries suffered injuries while riding a Yamaha dirt bike. He sued the U.S. distributor of that dirt bike, defendant and respondent Yamaha Motor Corporation, U.S.A. (Yamaha), among others, asserting that the accident was caused by a throttle assembly that fell off the handlebar as he was riding. The jury found in Yamaha's favor, and the trial court later awarded Yamaha costs.

On appeal, Defries contends, among other things, that the court erroneously denied his request to instruct the jury that Yamaha was liable for its dealer's negligent assembly of the dirt bike, a ruling that limited Defries's negligence cause of action to Yamaha's own negligence. California law, however, places "responsibility for defects, whether negligently or nonnegligently caused, on the manufacturer of the completed product ... regardless of what part of the manufacturing process the manufacturer chooses to delegate to third parties." ( Vandermark v. Ford Motor Co. (1964) 61 Cal.2d 256, 261, 37 Cal.Rptr. 896, 391 P.2d 168 ( Vandermark ).) The same principle applies to distributors. And as the distributor of a completed product, Yamaha "cannot delegate its duty ... [and thus] cannot escape liability on the ground that the defect in [Defries's bike] may have been caused by something one of its authorized dealers did or failed to do." ( Ibid. ) Thus, Defries was "relieved of proving that the manufacturer or distributor was negligent in the production, design, or dissemination of the [product]." ( Daly v. General Motors Corp. (1978) 20 Cal.3d 725, 736-737, 144 Cal.Rptr. 380, 575 P.2d 1162.) Rather, if the dealer negligently assembled the product, Yamaha was jointly liable for damages caused by that negligence. Because the requested instruction should have been given, we reverse the judgment on the negligence cause of action. We otherwise affirm the judgment.


Defries's wife purchased a dirt bike in December 2016 as a Christmas present for her husband. Defries first rode the bike a month later.

On February 12, 2017, Defries rode the dirt bike again. He met with his friends Johnny Butcher and Johnny Kitchin at a dirt course in Perris.

Defries rode for about 15 or 20 minutes and was going through the whoops, or small hills, portion of the course. As he testified at trial: "I was coming through [the whoops] kind of in a crouched position, sitting up over the bike. As I'm going the bike is rocking back and forth. And then at one moment the throttle just kind of slipped off and the handlebars came into me and I went down. It was quick. It just happened like that."

Butcher testified at trial that "[j]ust shortly after [Defries] entered the whoops, maybe the second or third one in, his handlebars went to the left and then he just tumbled." Both Butcher and Kitchin observed that the throttle was hanging off to the side and not attached to the bike when they loaded the bike back onto Defries's truck after the accident.

Defries fractured his right femur and separated his shoulder. He possibly suffered a hernia from the accident as well.

Defries filed suit against four defendants: Yamaha, Yamaha Motor Company Limited (Yamaha Japan), Yamaha Motor Manufacturing Corporation of America, and West Coast Yamaha, Inc., doing business as Langston Motorsports (Langston Motorsports). The complaint alleged five causes of action against all defendants: negligence, strict product liability (manufacturing defect), strict product liability (design defect), strict product liability (failure to warn), and breach of implied warranty.

Yamaha Japan and Yamaha Motor Manufacturing Corporation of America were dismissed early, leaving only Yamaha and Langston Motorsports as defendants. Defries settled with Langston Motorsports before opening statements began at trial. During trial, Defries withdrew his causes of action for strict products liability (manufacturing defect) and strict products liability (design defect). Thus, the jury was tasked with determining only whether Yamaha was liable for three causes of action: negligence, strict products liability (failure to warn), and breach of implied warranty.

Within the complaint's negligence cause of action, Defries alleged that Yamaha (and the other defendants) had a duty to assemble the motorcycle so that the throttle assembly did not disengage from the handlebar, and that they negligently assembled it. Prior to trial, Defries opposed summary judgment by arguing, as its first reason why Yamaha was negligent and citing Vandermark , that Yamaha was liable for the dealer's negligence in failing to properly secure the throttle because it had a nondelegable duty to properly assemble his motorcycle.

Defries's trial theory was that the crash was caused by the failure of one or both of the bolts in the throttle assembly to be properly tightened, and that Yamaha was liable even though it did not assemble the throttle. In opening statements, Defries's counsel told the jury that Yamaha has "what we call a nondelegatory duty" to make sure the motorcycle is safe, but they chose to delegate that responsibility to the dealer and "the throttle bolts were not properly secured at the dealership."

A Yamaha employee testified that its dirt bikes are designed by Yamaha Japan and that Yamaha distributes those dirt bikes in the United States. Yamaha buys the dirt bikes from Yamaha Japan but does not assemble them; rather, it passes along partially assembled dirt bikes from Yamaha Japan in crates to dealers, who then complete final assembly of the dirt bikes before selling them to consumers. The dealer's assembly includes putting the throttle assembly onto the handlebar and assembling the handlebar onto the dirt bike. Langston Motorsports was the dealer who assembled and sold Defries's dirt bike.

One of Defries's experts, Russell Darnell, opined that Langston Motorsports did not properly torque the bolts on the throttle assembly—that "[m]ost likely" the Langston Motorsports employee in charge of assembling the dirt bike "tightened one too tight and the second one not to spec." Darnell stated that when a bolt is not properly tightened, vibrations from vehicle operation can cause it to fall out. He stated: "[P]ractically everybody has got a weed eater or an old car or something where a bolt falls out. That's from vibration. A bolt never tightens itself. It will always continue to the outside to where it gets to the point where it falls out. That's just normal vibration. In this case the bolts were not torqued to enough torque to stop that." Darnell stated that bolt release could occur either if "[t]he bolts were not tightened enough" or if the one of the bolts were over-torqued. Darnell opined that had the bolt been properly tightened, Defries would not have crashed the dirt bike. Separately, Darnell stated that the throttle cable on Defries's dirt bike (which was shown at trial) had been routed to the handlebar incorrectly. Another of Defries's expert witnesses, Christopher Brignola, also testified that one of the assembly bolts attaching the throttle to the handlebar had been overtightened.

Yamaha disputed that the throttle bolts had been improperly tightened. As one of its experts stated: "When the bolts are loose, the throttle can rotate on the handlebar. In order to give it gas, it has to be—if you twist it—the effect is that you can't give it consistent amounts of throttle. It slips on the handlebar. It affects your ability to control that. You're not able to start it up." Another one of its experts conceded that the throttle cable had been routed incorrectly. Yamaha contended that a throttle cable leashes the assembly to the handlebar and that the amount of force that would have been necessary to fully remove the assembly would have stretched and damaged the cable, adding that there was no such damage to the throttle cable on Defries's dirt bike. Yamaha's theory was that Butcher and Kitchin deliberately removed the throttle from the handlebar after the crash in order to "help" Defries. In response, Defries' expert witness Brignola opined that there was "no evidence consistent with tampering of the bolts or disassembling of the throttle."

The jury returned special verdicts for Yamaha on all three causes of action, and the trial court entered judgment for Yamaha. The trial court later denied Defries's new trial motion and awarded Yamaha costs. Defries appealed from the denial of the motion for new trial and the motion to strike or tax costs that led to Yamaha's costs award.


Defries correctly contends that the jury should have been instructed that any negligence in assembly by Langston Motorsports should be imputed to Yamaha because of a nondelegable duty Yamaha had, and that judgment on this claim must therefore be reversed.

A. Instructional Error

After the evidentiary phase of the trial had concluded but before closing arguments, in a hearing outside the presence of the jury, the trial court heard arguments over disputed jury instructions.

Defries first requested, and the trial court refused, several instructions relating to the existence or nonexistence of an agency relationship between Yamaha and Langston Motorsports. The trial court believed that no evidence justified giving the instructions, at one point stating: "I have heard no evidence that they are your agent for general negligence."

Defries then requested that the jury hear CACI 3713, an instruction on1 nondelegable duty. Defries argued that "it's a matter of law that the...

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