Gebhardt v. Am. Honda Motor Co., WD 83786

CourtCourt of Appeal of Missouri (US)
Writing for the CourtEDWARD R. ARDINI, JR., JUDGE
Citation627 S.W.3d 37
Parties Christopher GEBHARDT, Appellant, v. AMERICAN HONDA MOTOR CO., INC., et al., Respondents.
Decision Date09 March 2021
Docket NumberWD 83786

627 S.W.3d 37

Christopher GEBHARDT, Appellant,
AMERICAN HONDA MOTOR CO., INC., et al., Respondents.

WD 83786

Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District.

Opinion filed: March 9, 2021
Motion for Rehearing and/or Transfer to Supreme Court Denied April 27, 2021
Application for Transfer Denied August 31, 2021

Robert A. Thrasher, Kansas City, for Appellant.

Carl J. Pesce, St. Louis, for Respondents.

Division Two: W. Douglas Thomson, Presiding Judge, Lisa White Hardwick, Judge and Edward R. Ardini, Jr., Judge


627 S.W.3d 40

Christopher Gebhardt ("Gebhardt") appeals from the judgment of the Circuit Court of Saline County granting summary judgment in favor of American Honda Motor Company and Honda of South Carolina Manufacturing (collectively, "Honda") in Gebhardt's suit against Honda alleging strict product liability based on design defect, failure to warn, and negligence. Gebhardt argues the trial court abused its discretion when it excluded Gebhardt's expert under section 490.065, RSMo, and then erred by granting summary judgment based on Gebhardt's failure to offer admissible expert testimony. We affirm.

Factual and Procedural Background

On December 12, 2012, Gebhardt was working with his father removing trees on a farm in Saline County as part of their logging business. Shortly after arriving at the farm that day, Gebhardt drove his 2007 Honda Foreman TRX500 FPE all-terrain vehicle ("the ATV") through a creek. As he exited a finger of the creek, a higher area of creek bed created by flash flooding, Gebhardt attempted to drive up the embankment at idle speed. Gebhardt indicated the ground at the embankment was "hard" and "[t]here wasn't any water in the finger at that time." Gebhardt stated that, as he started up the embankment, he pressed the throttle about one-sixteenth of its ability to move, but the engine suddenly went "wide open" causing the ATV to flip over. Gebhardt was injured in the accident.

Gebhardt filed suit against Honda,1 alleging strict liability design defect, failure to warn, and negligence. Gebhardt endorsed Dr. Kenneth Blundell ("Dr. Blundell"), a mechanical engineer, as his expert to testify concerning the alleged design defect. Dr. Blundell earned his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering in 1977 and worked as a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Missouri in Columbia and then Kansas City for nearly thirty years before retiring. Dr. Blundell's areas of academic interest included product design and manufacturing, and he has published academic papers in that area. Dr. Blundell also received a certificate in accident reconstruction in 1998 from Northwestern University. Dr. Blundell's education and experience did not include research or work with ATVs.

In his deposition, Dr. Blundell opined that Gebhardt's accident was likely caused by water accessing the engine and throttle position sensor, which produced a short circuit resulting in the ATV rapidly accelerating and flipping over. Dr. Blundell explained that the throttle position sensor is an electrical device that "provides a voltage output that reflects the speed of the butterfly valve in the carburetor, and that output is fed back to the caliper that is at the right-hand end of the handlebars. And that is designed – voltage is designed to essentially fine-tune the speed of which the operator is desiring to travel." Dr. Blundell stated that water entering the throttle position sensor can cause the sensor to lock up and produce an issue with unanticipated speed. Dr. Blundell noted that "when Mr. Gebhardt's ATV was first examined, there was evidence of dust in the vertically mounted position sensor and 3P connector. This would show that debris and water had been present in the area of the throttle position sensor and 3P connector."

627 S.W.3d 41

Despite finding debris around the connector, Dr. Blundell conceded that there was no physical evidence that any water flowed beyond the 3P connector and reached the throttle position sensor. Dr. Blundell noted that his conclusions assumed the following: "[T]hat [the ATV] went through [the creek] and had splashed water up from underneath and that water had ingressed into an area close to the throttle sensor." Based on these assumptions, Dr. Blundell stated that "[w]hen the vehicle started to head up the slope coming out of the ditch, that water would flow downhill and, I believe, any water that got into the area underneath the seat and underneath the rubber mat would have a potential for getting into the exposed 3P connector[.]"

Dr. Blundell further opined that if water reached the throttle position sensor, there could be up to a five-volt surge. Dr. Blundell was not able to quantify the amount of water necessary to cause such a surge or, if there was a surge, whether the surge would reach five volts. Dr. Blundell could only say that water accessing the throttle position sensor "will probably put the vehicle at risk because now we've got the throttle position sensor potentially going up to five volts."

Dr. Blundell stated that this issue with the throttle position sensor was similar to an issue previously identified by Honda, which resulted in a recall of certain models of ATVs.2 In 2008, Honda recalled ATVs after finding that "[w]ater can enter the right-side stop-switch wire harness and collect inside the plastic sheathing. The trapped water can seep into the wires and, over time, contaminate the throttle position sensor. Water in the throttle position sensor can freeze in cold weather and prevent the engine from returning to idle when the throttle is released." Honda addressed this issue by cutting five slits in the sheath that covered the wire harness. Dr. Blundell opined that this fix did not remedy the issue of water entering the 3P connector and short circuiting the throttle position sensor. It was Dr. Blundell's position that the vertical orientation of the throttle position sensor and 3P connector still allowed water to enter and pool inside the 3P connector and reach the sensor. Dr. Blundell stated that a horizontal mount was necessary to address the issue of water reaching the throttle position sensor.

To support his theory, Dr. Blundell recorded a video demonstration during which his wife dripped water from a syringe onto the top of a 3P connector to "see if there was a means of water overflowing from the topside to the underside of [the] connector." According to Dr. Blundell, the demonstration established that water could flow through the connector and pool in the prongs of the throttle position sensor. Dr. Blundell was not able to specifically identify the mechanism by which water would have leaked through the 3P connector on Gebhardt's ATV at the time of the accident instead indicating only that he was "believing that the two rectangular holes [on the 3P connector] ... would still allow water to get down in the topside [of the throttle position sensor]." Of note, Dr. Blundell's demonstration used an exemplar 3P connector that was not attached to the receptacle that houses the throttle position sensor on an ATV. This is not insignificant because when the 3P connector is attached to the receptacle housing the throttle position sensor, a polymer seal operates to seal off the top of the 3P connector from the interior of the throttle position sensor.

627 S.W.3d 42

On December 20, 2019, Honda filed a motion to exclude Dr. Blundell as an expert and a motion for summary judgment on all counts. Honda asserted that Dr. Blundell was not qualified due to a lack of specific knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education in the field of ATVs3 and that the opinions he was offering were not reliable. Honda specifically argued that Dr. Blundell's opinions were unsupported by evidence, relied on assumptions, and no tests were completed to confirm his theories.

Following extensive argument on the motions, the trial court granted Honda's motion to exclude Dr. Blundell from testifying as an expert at trial:

... Mr. Blundell is highly educated and likely qualified to testify as an expert on many issues involving mechanical engineering[; however t]here has been no showing [that] Mr. Blundell has superior or specialized training, knowledge, education, experience, or skill regarding the 2007 Honda Foreman TRX500 FPE or any other ATV.... [I]t has not been shown that Mr. Blundell[’s] opinions are based on sufficient facts or data or [are] the product of reliable principles and methods applied reliably to this case.... Mr. Blundell has not performed any test to prove his theories to make his opinions reliable[,] ... [and Gebhardt] has failed to prove Mr. Blundell is qualified to testify as an expert witness under section 490.065.2, RSMo. on the issues on which he is being offered as an expert.

Based on the exclusion of Dr. Blundell, the trial court also granted Honda's motion for summary judgment:

... [A]fter review of the summary judgment pleadings and hearing the arguments of counsel, and after the exclusion of the testimony of Kenneth Blundell, the Court finds [Gebhardt], after an adequate period of discovery, has not been able to produce, and will not be able to produce, evidence sufficient to allow the trier of fact to find that a defective design of the ATV in

To continue reading

Request your trial
1 practice notes
  • Coburn v. Kramer & Frank, P.C., ED 108948
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Missouri (US)
    • March 9, 2021
    ...circuit clerk intended to appoint Post, as authorized by § 506.140.1, and extrinsic evidence would be required to establish otherwise.15 627 S.W.3d 37 We also briefly address Coburn's argument that she has stated claims under the MMPA and for unjust enrichment. As noted, we have found that ......
1 cases
  • Coburn v. Kramer & Frank, P.C., ED 108948
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Missouri (US)
    • March 9, 2021
    ...circuit clerk intended to appoint Post, as authorized by § 506.140.1, and extrinsic evidence would be required to establish otherwise.15 627 S.W.3d 37 We also briefly address Coburn's argument that she has stated claims under the MMPA and for unjust enrichment. As noted, we have found that ......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT