One day before a Mississippi jury cleared motorcycle-maker Suzuki of liability over claims that a defective brake injured a rider, another set of plaintiffs were at the Georgia Court of Appeals fighting to preserve a $12.5 million judgment in a similar case.
In what he described as a “somewhat surreal” experience, R. Randy Edwards of Smyrna’s Cochran & Edwards—a plaintiffs attorney in both cases—said he was in a federal courthouse in Jackson, MIssissippi, as the judge honed the jury instructions while watching a video feed of the appellate arguments in Georgia.
The Mississippi verdict was handed down Dec. 7 after a five-week trial before Southern District Judge Henry Wingate, with plaintiffs Bradley and Kristan Stubblefield represented by Edwards, Mike Malouf Sr. and Mike Malouf Jr., of Malouf and Malouf in Jackson.
Suzuki Motor Corp. and Suzuki Motor of America are represented by Randall Riggs and Jeffrey Mortier of Frost, Brown, Todd in Indianapolis and Bobby Miller, Will Thomas, and Kat Carrington of Butler Snow in Jackson.
Riggs and Mortier were not authorized to discuss the case but said the jury took about two hours to reach its verdict. Mortier said that in closing arguments the plaintiff’s lawyers asked for more than $14 million in damages.
The plaintiffs filed a notice of appeal Friday.
The day before the defense verdict was declared in Mississippi, King & Spalding partner Chilton Varner for Suzuki and David Walbert of Parks Chesin & Walbert for the plaintiffs squared off at the Georgia Court of Appeals over the verdict delivered in February.
Varner argued that “a series of well-meaning but mistaken rulings” by Douglas County State Court Judge W. O’Neal Dettmering should void the February verdict that awarded $12.5 million to Adrian Johns and his wife for injuries he suffered over the claimed failure of the GSX-R series front brake assembly that Suzuki recalled.
She also urged the panel of Judges M. Yvette Miller, Clyde Reese and Brian Rickman to uphold the trial court’s judgment reducing the award to almost $6.4 million to reflect the 49 percent of liability the jury attributed to Johns’ own negligence.
In addition to defending the verdict, Walbert argued in support of a cross appeal arguing the entire $12.5 million verdict should be awarded and that Dettmering erred in reducing it.
“Comparative negligence has never been used to reduce a verdict in a strict liability case,” Walbert said.
The plaintiffs’ trial lawyers in that case included Edwards and firm colleague Paul Piland, and John Sherrod and Stephanie Regas of Douglasville’s Sherrod & Bernard, joined on appeal by Walbert and firm partner Jennifer Coalson.
In addition to Riggs and Mortier, Suzuki’s team included Michael Goldman, Zachary Wilson and Carl Anderson Jr. of Hawkins Parnell & Young. On appeal, Varner was joined by King & Spalding partner Susan Clare.
The same type of Suzuki brake assembly was blamed for a wreck that resulted in an $8 million verdict in September in Orange County, California, that included $6 million in punitive damages.
In an email, Edwards said there were “several key factual differences” between the Mississippi and Georgia cases.
While Johns said he remembered his front brake failing before the wreck, the man injured in Mississippi, Brad Stubblefield, had no memory of the incident, Edwards said.
“In the hospital before going into surgery, he did raise his right hand (which operates the front brake) and mumble ‘front brake, front brake,’ but that was excluded as hearsay,” Edwards said. “So, unlike Adrian Johns, he was unable to testify that he applied the brakes and the front brake failed.”
Edwards also said there was “overwhelming evidence” in the Johns case to support claims for product liability, negligent failure to warn and “inexcusable delays” in announcing the recall, which Suzuki allegedly announced several months after deciding it was necessary in order not to impact the summertime peak motorcycle buying season.
Johns’ wreck happened two months before Suzuki’s recall in October 2013. Stubblefield’s accident occurred in 2012.
“There was no evidence that Suzuki had decided to conduct a recall by then, so that claim was not in [the Mississippi] case,” he said.
Edwards also said that in the Georgia and California cases, Suzuki witnesses and documents “overwhelmingly proved the company’s wrongdoing. No Suzuki witness took the stand in Mississippi and no Suzuki documents were allowed into evidence.”
Suzuki lawyer Riggs agreed to speak to the Daily Report but was unavailable by press time.