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Friday, April 19, 2024 | Back issues
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Court Revives Defective Motorcycle Helmet Claim

(CN) - A Memphis-based helmet manufacturer may be held liable for mislabeling one of its motorcycle products and claiming that the helmet complied with federal safety standards, the 6th Circuit ruled.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration imposes minimal safety standards for motorcycle helmets enforced through random selection. Under the self-certification provision of the standards, helmet manufacturers are supposed to test and certify their own helmets. Compliant products receive Department of Transportation label.

In 2000, Fulmer Helmet's large-size AF-50 Trooper was randomly tested and passed. But in 2002, the same product in size small failed the impact attenuation test, which measures impact on helmets dropped from at least 6 feet onto an anvil. The DOT symbol on the helmet was also found to be an eighth of an inch too high from the bottom of the helmet. Fulmer did not modify or recall the helmet, inform purchasers, or remove the DOT label.

Robert Fabian bought two large Fulmer AF-50 Trooper helmets in 2004. He sold one to a friend who later died of severe brain trauma in a motorcycle crash while wearing the helmet.

Fabian filed a class action against Fulmer for misrepresenting the unsafe helmets as "DOT approved."

Because only small-size helmets had failed the 2002 test, a Memphis federal judge dismissed the case. The court held that Fabian's large helmets were not mislabeled because large helmets had passed in 2000.

The Cincinnati-based federal appeals panel reversed the decision, finding that further discovery was needed to determine why small helmets failed the safety test.

"Two differently sized helmets, for example, may be no more distinct as a matter of performance than two differently sized pairs of shoes or two differently sized pairs of pants," Circuit Judge Jeffery Sutton wrote for the court. "If so, the failed 2002 test potentially exposed a defect in all AF-50 helmets, no matter their size."

The district court had also rejected Fulmer's claim that the Safety Act preempted Fabian's claims.

On appeal, Fulmer argued that Fabian cannot bring his claims because the Safety Act does not contain a private-enforcement provision. Since Tennessee law authorizes private-enforcement actions for fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation, however, "Fabian has no need for, and thus need not invoke, a private right of action under the Safety Act," Sutton wrote.

Fulmer also argued that the act prevents the establishment of alternate standards, except where such standards exceed federal minimums. But Fabian's suit does not violate this portion, the appeals court found.

"The premise of Fabian's common law claims is not the creation of a new standard, whether one below, at or above Standard 218," Sutton explained.

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