Howerton v. Arai Helmet, Ltd., 383PA03.

Citation358 N.C. 440,597 S.E.2d 674
Decision Date25 June 2004
Docket NumberNo. 383PA03.,383PA03.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina
PartiesW. Bruce HOWERTON, Jr., DDS v. ARAI HELMET, LTD., a Japanese Corporation; Arai Helmet, Ltd., a New Jersey Corporation; and Tom Brissey.

Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, PLLC, by Burley B. Mitchell, Jr., Richard T. Rice, and Alison R. Bost, Raleigh, for plaintiff-appellant.

Ellis & Winters, L.L.P., by Richard W. Ellis, Matthew W. Sawchak, and Andrew S. Chamberlin, Raleigh; and Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker, by James C. Ughetta, pro hac vice, White Plains, NY, for defendants-appellees.

Jeff Hunt, Hendersonville, on behalf of the North Carolina Conference for District Attorneys, amicus curiae.

Twiggs, Beskind, Strickland & Rabenau, P.A., by Howard F. Twiggs, Donald H. Beskind, and Jerome P. Trehy, Jr., Raleigh; and Robert P. Mosteller, Durham, on behalf of the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers, amicus curiae.

Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, L.L.P., by George Major Teague, Raleigh; Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson, P.A., by John Robbins Wester and Scott William Gaylord, Charlotte; and Bailey & Dixon, L.L.P., by Gary S. Parsons, Raleigh, on behalf of the North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry and the North Carolina Association of Defense Attorneys, amici curiae.

Smith Moore, L.L.P., by J. Donald Cowan, Jr., and Dixie Wells, Greensboro, on behalf of the Product Liability Advisory Council, Inc., amicus curiae.


On 5 October 1996, plaintiff, W. Bruce Howerton, Jr., D.D.S. ("Howerton"), suffered a devastating motorcycle accident while riding his off-road motorcycle at a motocross practice track in western North Carolina. Howerton was an experienced off-road motorcycle enthusiast who had been riding motorcycles since he was a child. He had owned numerous motorcycles throughout his life and was knowledgeable in the technical aspects of motorcycles and motorcycle equipment.

The motocross track on which Howerton rode the day of the accident was a winding dirt course with numerous jumps and obstacles. Howerton wore typical motocross safety gear, including riding boots, knee braces, gloves, and an Arai "MX/a" motorcycle helmet. While jumping a course obstacle known as a "table top," Howerton landed atop another motorcycle rider who had entered the landing area of the jump perpendicular to Howerton's line of travel. The two motorcycles became entangled on impact, causing Howerton's motorcycle to stop abruptly and launching Howerton into an airborne somersault over the handlebars of his motorcycle. Howerton landed upside down on the back of his helmeted head, breaking the chin guard attached to his helmet and forcing his chin downward into his chest. As he landed, Howerton experienced what he described as severe popping, crunching, and pain in his neck. Lying in the dirt, Howerton struggled to breathe and was unable to move his legs; he immediately recognized the severity of his injuries. Paramedics were summoned and Howerton was transported to the hospital by helicopter. As a result of his accident, Howerton sustained debilitating cervical vertebral fractures at the C5/C6 level that left him a quadriplegic, permanently paralyzed from the neck down.

On 4 October 1999, Howerton brought actions against the other motorcycle rider, the owners of the motocross track, and Arai Helmet, Ltd.,1 the manufacturer of the motorcycle helmet Howerton was wearing when the accident occurred. Our review of this matter concerns only Howerton's claims against Arai. Howerton's products liability claims against Arai set forth various theories of negligence and breach of implied and express warranties. Howerton alleged, among other things, that Arai negligently designed, manufactured, and promoted a helmet that was unreasonably dangerous under ordinary usage and that such negligence was the direct and proximate cause of his quadriplegia. Howerton further claimed that Arai breached both express and implied warranties by manufacturing a defective helmet and by failing to provide adequate warnings of its dangerous condition. On 13 August 2001, Howerton amended his complaint to include a claim that Arai intentionally engaged in a campaign to deceptively advertise and market the allegedly defective helmet, thereby engaging in an unfair and deceptive trade practice in violation of N.C.G.S. § 75-1.1.

The Arai "MX/a" helmet worn by Howerton on the day of his accident was equipped with a flexible, removable guard across the chin and mouth that was secured to the helmet on each side by nylon screws. By comparison, many other helmets are designed with a rigid, integral chin bar that is structurally molded into the helmet. In addition to protecting the motorcyclist's mouth and nose area from debris, some of these rigid guards are purportedly designed to increase the strength and stability of the motorcyclist's neck upon impact by preventing the neck from rotating too far forward. Such a chin guard limits the forward rotation of the head by stopping against the motorcyclist's chest, protecting the head and neck from extreme forward rotation.

The purpose of the guard on the specific Arai "MX/a" helmet worn by Howerton on the day of his accident is subject to conflicting characterizations which lie at the heart of this litigation. Howerton complains that the chin guard on his Arai helmet should have restricted the movement of his neck like a rigid chin guard and cushioned his head on impact so as to prevent the catastrophic spinal injury which he suffered. Howerton alleges that when the nylon screws securing the chin guard to his helmet broke on impact, his head was allowed to rotate too far forward, beyond its normal anatomical range, resulting in a "hyperflexion" of his neck which caused the resulting cervical fractures and paralysis. Howerton additionally claims that Arai's advertising and marketing led him to believe that the helmet provided superior neck protection, when in fact it did not, and that Arai failed to warn him that its chin guard would neither withstand nor protect against the physical forces Howerton experienced in his motorcycle accident.

According to Arai, however, "[t]he intended function of the mouth guard on the MX/a helmet is to prevent pebbles, dirt and small branches from contacting that part of the rider's face behind the mouth guard while riding off-road or in wooded areas." Arai insists that its breakaway rock guard was never designed "to function as an integral part of a full face helmet and was never intended to offer the same degree of facial protection ... in the full range of possible motorcycle accidents." Rather, Arai contends that the chin guard on its helmet was intentionally designed to bend or break away on impact so as to minimize excessive and dangerous torquing of the neck.

To prove the alleged defectiveness of his Arai helmet and its causal connection to his injuries, Howerton offered the opinion testimony of four key expert witnesses:

(1) Professor Hugh H. Hurt, Jr. is an expert in motorcycle accidents and motorcycle helmets. Professor Hurt is President of the Head Protection Research Laboratory of Southern California and Professor Emeritus of Safety Science at the University of Southern California. Professor Hurt has researched and published extensively in the field of motorcycle accidents and motorcycle helmet safety for more than twenty-five years. Based upon Professor Hurt's extensive credentials, Arai stipulated that he is qualified as an expert pursuant to North Carolina Rule of Evidence 702. Professor Hurt's opinion was that the flexible chin guard on Howerton's Arai helmet was defectively designed and manufactured such that it broke loose on impact and failed to limit the forward rotation of Howerton's head. Instead of stopping the chin against the sternum, as a rigid chin guard would do, Professor Hurt opined that the flexible chin guard on Howerton's Arai helmet broke on impact, allowing Howerton's neck to flex towards the chest, beyond its normal range of movement. Finding the chin guard on the Arai helmet to be "flexible and weak," Professor Hurt was further of the opinion that the Arai helmet's apparent similarity to other motorcycle helmets with structurally rigid chin guards created a "misleading and dangerous" "illusion of protection."

(2) William C. Hutton, D.Sc. is an expert in biomechanics and orthopaedic biomechanics. Dr. Hutton is Professor and Director of Orthopaedic Research at Emory University School of Medicine. He is widely published and has over thirty-five years of experience in the fields of biomechanics, orthopedic research, and spinal injuries. Dr. Hutton's opinion was that the flexible chin guard on Howerton's Arai helmet broke and allowed Howerton's head and neck to travel beyond their normal range of motion, causing the hyperflexion and compression that resulted in Howerton's paralysis.

(3) James Randolph Hooper is an expert in the design and manufacture of composite materials such as those found in motorcycle helmets. Hooper worked as a design engineer on the development of other full-face, off-road motorcycle helmets and is personally experienced with off-road motorcycles and motorcycle accidents. Hooper's opinion was that the flexible chin guard on Howerton's Arai helmet offered no protection on impact and, in fact, created a considerable hazard due to its flexible nature. Hooper further opined that the chin guard on Howerton's Arai helmet was known to detach on impact and lacked the protective features typical of helmets with rigid chin guards.

(4) Charles Edward Rawlings, III, M.D. is a board certified neurosurgeon. With more than ten years of neurosurgical experience, Dr. Rawlings has conducted numerous spinal surgeries on patients with cervical fractures similar to the one sustained by Howerton. Although Dr. Rawlings was not Howerton's treating neurosurgeon, Dr. Rawlings reviewed Howerton's medical records and opined...

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