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Hilton couple wins $2M verdict from Harley-Davidson

Pair seriously injured in 2004 motorcycle crash

A Hilton couple that was seriously injured when their Harley-Davidson motorcycle crashed has won a jury verdict of more than $2 million against the iconic American company because of a defective part.

Anthony LaDuca

Anthony LaDuca

“It’s a horrible story of a company that put profits above people,” said Anthony LaDuca, co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the case.

In an emailed statement, Harley-Davidson officials said they were disappointed in the verdict, which they feel “goes against the great weight of the evidence.” The company noted that the motorcycle was disposed of before it could be inspected by Harley-Davidson.

On April 30, 2004, David Smalley was driving the motorcycle, with his wife, Judith Smalley, on the passenger seat behind him, when the motorcycle shut down as they entered a curve on Route 18, in Clarkson.

Because there was no power, the 850-pound touring motorcycle would have tipped onto its side if Smalley tried to continue making the turn. Instead, he went straight ahead into a grass field, but drove into a rut and the motorcycle flipped over.

David Smalley, 71, broke several ribs and other bones, suffered a collapsed lung and injured spleen and was put into an induced coma for about a month. Judith Smalley, 69, also suffered broken ribs and bones and other injuries.

Dirty secret

During the eight-day trial before state Supreme Court Justice William Taylor, the Smalleys’ attorneys, LaDuca and Norman Palmiere, showed that their 1999 Harley-Davidson motorcycle had a 40-amp circuit breaker that could unexpectedly trip, causing the vehicle to shut down.

In the verdict reached on Jan. 31, the jury awarded David Smalley $850,000 for past pain and suffering and $500,000 for future pain and suffering. The jury awarded Judith Smalley $350,000 for past pain and suffering and $350,000 for future pain and suffering.

Jerauld E. Brydges, a partner at Harter Secrest & Emery LLP, who represents Harley-Davidson, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Smalleys bought their 1999 motorcycle in the fall of 1998.  From 1998 to 2003 they had the motorcycle in the shop several times for problems with a sudden loss of power. Each time mechanics thought they had fixed the problem, but the 40-amp circuit breaker was never replaced.

From 1995 to 1998 Harley-Davidson used a 50-amp circuit breaker, but switched to a 40-amp circuit breaker in 1999.

“Harley-Davidson was aware that when the circuit breaker tripped, the motorcycle rider would lose all electrical and engine power for approximately 15 seconds,” LaDuca said.

There was no diagnostic computer test and no information in the service manual that would help mechanics diagnose and fix the problem.

In most cases, when mechanics reported the problem to Harley-Davidson, they weren’t given a solution. But occasionally, when customers would complain enough or threaten legal action, Harley-Davidson technicians would tell mechanics to replace the 40-amp circuit breaker with a 50-amp circuit breaker, LaDuca said.

“It was the dirty secret,” LaDuca said.

“Fix it for people who complain enough, otherwise let it go,” he said.

Twisted but true

LaDuca believes other Harley-Davidson owners may have been hurt because of the 40-amp circuit breakers.

“The reality is there’s probably a lot of accidents out there where people just never knew,” he said.

In December 2003, based on four complaints, the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration opened an investigation into the problem. Harley-Davidson issued a voluntary recall and claimed they were not previously aware of the problem.

But the recall included only 2001 to 2003 motorcycles that got new 50-amp circuit breakers.

LaDuca said Harley-Davidson had switched to 40-amp circuit breakers because it prevented alternators, which charge the battery, from working so hard that they would be damaged and need to be replaced under warranty, which cut into profits.

The problem happened more often in motorcycles that were not ridden very often. When a motorcycle goes unused for a long time, the battery discharges. And when it’s put to use, the alternator has to run for a long time to recharge the battery.

When the alternators worked really hard, the 40-amp breaker would trip and the motorcycle would shut down. After about 15 seconds, the circuit breaker would cool down enough to restart the motorcycle, making it almost impossible to figure out why the machine had stopped.

Harley-Davidson subsequently also issued a voluntary recall for 1999 and 2000 motorcycles. LaDuca said they told government officials the recall was to upgrade the alternator, not to replace the circuit breaker.

But the company said the upgrade to the alternator might cause some problems with the 40-amp circuit breakers, so, as a courtesy to customers, Harley-Davidson also replaced the 40-amp breakers with 50-amp breakers. But they never acknowledged it was done to solve the problem of intermittent shutdowns.

“It’s pretty twisted, isn’t it? But it’s true. That’s what they did,” LaDuca said.

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