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$1.25 Million Snowmobile Products Liability

Estate of Cathy Fraser, et al v. Quiet Ridge, Inc., et al, Barnstable Superior Court Civil Action No.: 05-0280

Type of Action: Products Liability/Wrongful Death

Injuries Alleged: Wrongful Death

Result: $1,250,000.00 Settlement

Date of Settlement: May 2007

Case Summary: This was a wrongful death action arising out of an accident on December 30, 2002, when plaintiff’s decedent was operating a snowmobile. Plaintiffs alleged that the accident occurred because the decedent mistook an aftermarket part, known as a finger throttle (in essence an accelerator) for a brake. This caused her to lose control of the snowmobile and suffer fatal injuries. Plaintiff’s decedent was a married, forty-one year old mother of two at the time of her fatal accident.

The finger throttle was an after market part which had been installed on a used snowmobile prior to its sale to the decedent’s husband. Snowmobiles are designed to be accelerated by a thumb throttle, which is located on the inside of the right handlebar and engaged by pushing forward with the right thumb. The aftermarket finger throttle was installed on the outside portion of the right handlebar and engaged by pulling with the fingers of the right hand. Plaintiffs (the surviving husband and children) brought claims against the manufacturer of the finger throttle, the company which designed it, the dealership which sold the used snowmobile, and the owner of the dealership, who personally dealt with the decedent’s husband. Plaintiffs alleged that the finger throttle was defective and unreasonably dangerous as it resembled a brake and necessary warnings, instructions, labels, or markings were not provided to identify it as a throttle.

The accident occurred on a family outing during Christmas vacation near Sunday River, Maine. The decedent was snowmobiling with her family, who were on three separate snowmobiles. Her husband and daughter were on the lead snowmobile, her brother-in-law and his fiancé were on the second snowmobile, and the decedent was on the third snowmobile. The family rode their snowmobiles from the yard of their cottage to a trail crossing their property. They approached a neighbor’s driveway marked with a stop sign. The first two snowmobiles stopped and then proceeded to cross the driveway. The decedent’s snowmobile suddenly accelerated, flew past her family, struck a rock and then a tree. She died instantly of a broken neck.

Although there was circumstantial evidence that the decedent’s sudden acceleration occurred when she grabbed the finger throttle, there was no eyewitness testimony that she had engaged the finger throttle rather than the conventional thumb throttle. The most that the witnesses could observe was that, in the brief moment they saw her zoom by, the decedent was gripping both handlebars while still accelerating. Although the Maine Game Wardens who investigated the accident concluded it occurred because the decedent grabbed the finger throttle, one of the lead investigators conceded at deposition that there was no “forensic evidence” supporting this conclusion.

Plaintiffs were prepared to offer expert testimony from an industry safety consultant and a professor of biomechanics that the accident could only have occurred by the decedent engaging the thumb throttle. Their testimony would have included that the forces involved would have made it impossible to continue to accelerate while both gripping the handlebars and using the thumb throttle and that once the finger throttle was engaged it would have been impossible to release it without falling off the snowmobile. The industry expert would also have testified that finger throttles were considered by snowmobile manufacturers and rejected precisely because of this risk. Plaintiffs were also prepared to offer testimony from a human factors expert that the placement and shape of the finger throttle made it likely to be mistaken for a brake and that even if an operator had been aware it was a brake, in an emergency an operator would be likely to instinctively engage it.

Defendants claimed that it was impossible to determine whether the decedent engaged the finger throttle and that the accident was the decedent’s fault for not attending snowmobile classes, viewing videotapes, or otherwise being properly trained. All defendants conceded, however, that they had never attended any such classes or received any such training. In fact, defendant’s safety expert admitted that his whole training in snowmobiles, prior to evaluating the safety of the finger throttle consisted of riding a snowmobile in a friend’s backyard.

The claims against the defendant designer and manufacturer/distributor settled shortly after the deposition of the designer of the finger throttle in which it became evident he had not conducted the type of product safety evaluation recommended by the safety expert he had retained.

The case continued against the defendant dealership and its owner, which admitted that it did not label or provide any written warnings, including the instruction sheet provided by the manufacturer, concerning the finger throttle, but claimed to have verbally instructed the decedent’s husband concerning the finger throttle. The plaintiff husband would have testified that no such warnings were given. Moreover, the defendant conceded that any such verbal “warning” took less than a minute and was given as part of an overview of the features of the used snowmobile that only took a few minutes in total. Plaintiff’s human factors expert would also have discussed the inadequacy of this so-called warning.

Plaintiffs would also have presented expert economic testimony concerning the economic value of the decedent to her survivors.

The claims against the dealership and its owner settled three days before the start of trial.

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