Suzuki moves cycle death case to federal court

By Kelly Holleran | Jan 27, 2010

HUNTINGTON – A Wayne County woman blames American Suzuki Motor Corporation for defectively designing a motorcycle that led to her husband's death, but the company denies responsibility for designing or constructing the vehicle in question.

The dispute has landed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia after American Suzuki removed it there from Wayne Circuit Court on Nov. 25.

In the original complaint, Tamilia Lynn Elkins claims her husband, Gary Dexter Elkins, died on Sept. 2, 2007, after his 2005 Suzuki Boulevard motorcycle crashed on U.S. 52 near Glen Hayes.

As Gary Elkins attempted to negotiate a curve in the road, his motorcycle suddenly veered out of control and crashed into a guardrail running along the shoulder of the road. The accident caused Gary Elkins to be thrown over the handlebars of the motorcycle and over the guardrail, causing him internal and external injuries that led to his death one hour later, according to the complaint.

Tamilia Elkins blames the cause of the accident on American Suzuki Motor Corporation, saying the company defectively designed the motorcycle.

"The aforesaid 2005 Suzuki Boulevard motorcycle belonging to decedent, and, upon information and belief, other Suzuki Boulevard motorcycles, because of their defective design, manufacture and production, were inherently dangerous when negotiating curves similar to the curve plaintiff's decedent encountered and when slowing to make left or right turns, at which times the said motorcycle would seem to go out of control on its own, despite the operator's efforts to control the motorcycle, and would wobble or weave at low speed and high speed," the suit states. "The incident motorcycles, including your decedent's motorcycle, were not dynamically stable at highway speeds."

In addition to its tendency to incorrectly navigate curves, the motorcycle would also shut down without warning, causing it to suddenly be without power, according to the complaint. Additional defects included a tank slap, which threw the motorcycle out of control, and a weave mode, which caused a vibrational oscillation mode at highway speeds, the complaint says.

Tamilia Elkins claims her husband remained unaware of the motorcycle's defects while he drove it, but should have been cautioned about its dangerous tendencies. In fact, it was only after her husband's death that Tamilia Elkins received a copy of a recall Suzuki had issued on the motorcycle, citing its perilous defects, according to the complaint.

As a result of Gary Elkins' death, his wife, three daughters and grandchildren have lost his comfort, protection, society, services and support, according to the complaint.

"Gary Dexter Elkins, who was widely known and respected, was industrious, active, intelligent, and an excellent provider for his family," the suit states. "His loving family has suffered and will suffer the loss of his affection, companionship and love."

In her six-count suit, Tamilia Elkins alleges strict liability in tort, breach of warranties, negligence, failure to warn and punitive damages.

But American Suzuki denies Elkins allegations against it and maintains it was not responsible for the design, manufacture or sale of the motorcycle.

In addition, it says the complaint should be dismissed, in part because the incident was caused through the negligence of a person other than American Suzuki and because the motorcycle could have been modified from its original form.

"ASMC, not being fully advised of all the circumstances surrounding the allegations set forth in the Complaint, reserves unto itself the affirmative defense that the claims of the plaintiff are or may be barred on the ground that one or more persons other than ASMC, its agents, servants or employees, negligently, intentionally or otherwise wrongly mishandled, misused, misapplied, abused or subjected to abnormal use, the product in question in this action, which mishandling, misuse, misapplication, abuse or abnormal use could not have reasonably foreseen by ASMC, as the same may prove applicable as discovery proceeds and the evidence is developed in this case," American Suzuki's response states.

Tamilia Elkins seeks an unspecified judgment, punitive damages, costs, attorney's fees and other relief the court deems just.

American Suzuki claims Tamilia Elkins should not be awarded punitive damages and contends her complaint against the company should be dismissed with prejudice.

"Plaintiff's request for punitive damages cannot be sustained, because an award of punitive damages under state law, subject to no predetermined limit, would violated ASMC's due process rights guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and the Constitution of West Virginia, and would further violate ASMC's right not to be subjected to an excessive fine or award in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Constitution of West Virginia," American Suzuki's answer states.

American Suzuki removed Tamilia Elkins' complaint to U.S. District Court, saying the court has original jurisdiction over the lawsuit because Elkins resides in a different state than the defendant and because she seeks more than $75,000.

"Based on the wrongful death allegations in the Complaint alone, it is evident that the amount in controversy here exceeds $75,000 and, therefore, that jurisdictional amount is met," the suit states. "Under West Virginia law, when an action for wrongful death is brought, the jury or the court may award such damages for the following (among other things): (A) sorrow, mental anguish, and solace which may include society, companionship, comfort, guidance, kindly offices and advice of the decedent; (B) compensation for reasonably expected loss of (i) income of the decedent, and (ii) services, protection, care and assistance provided by the decedent. When a punitive damage claim is also alleged, it is further evident that the amount in controversy here exceeds $75,000. Thus, it is clear that the jurisdictional amount is met."

Charles Stanford West of Williamson will be representing Tamilia Elkins.

Michael Bonasso and Elizabeth L. Taylor of Flaherty, Sensabaugh and Bonasso in Charleston will be representing American Suzuki Motor Corporation.

U.S. District Court case number: 3:09-cv-1284

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