Sixth Circuit Affirms Ruling for Hockey Helmet Manufacturer

Aug 23, 2005

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a summary judgment ruling for a helmet manufacturer, thereby dismissing the claim of an amateur hockey player, who claimed the manufacturer was at least partially responsible for an injury he suffered on the ice that rendered him a quadriplegic.
Specifically, the panel of judges found that the district court acted appropriately in dismissing the plaintiffs’ expert testimony, which had claimed that a malfunction in the helmet and mask assemblage caused the injury. The testimony in question, affirmed the panel, did not meet the standard for reputable scientific testimony set forth in the landmark case Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 592-94, 125 L. Ed. 2d 469, 113 S. Ct. 2786 (1993).
The origins for the case stemmed from an accident that occurred on May 21, 1995. Levi Mohney, 17, was participating in a try-out hockey camp in Toledo, Ohio, when he crashed into the boards and suffered a spinal injury that rendered him a quadriplegic.
The remaining defendant in the case is Cooper of Canada Limited n/k/a Bauer, Inc. (Bauer), which manufactured the helmet worn by Mohney at the time of his injury. Bauer filed several motions, including a motion to exclude Plaintiffs’ experts and a motion for summary judgment.
The district court granted both motions, prompting the plaintiffs’ appeal.
In reviewing the case, the panel noted that there was a warning imprinted on the back of the helmet at the time of purchase (and remains there today), which says:
“Ice hockey is a collision sport which is dangerous. This helmet affords no protection for neck or spinal injury. Severe head, brain or spinal injuries, including paralysis or death, may occur despite using this helmet. Do not use this helmet if the shell is cracked or if the interior padding is deteriorated. Read instructions carefully before wearing.”
Mohney admitted that he never read the above warning “on any of the hundreds of times he put the helmet on and took it off.” At the same time, noted the panel, “the helmet did not have a warning or instruction concerning the type of mask that should be affixed to the helmet, nor was Mohney warned that only certain helmets and masks should be used together.”
This was important because Mohney’s purchased a mask manufactured by former defendant Jofa Face Masks d/b/a Karhu USA, Inc. (Jofa) that he attached to the helmet using certain hardware, including screws, nuts and two “J-clips.”
“The helmet and mask in this case were not compatible and did not conform to relevant standards set forth by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM Standards),” wrote the panel. “ASTM Standards provide that (1) a hockey face protector (mask) should not extend more than 19 millimeters from the front of the helmet, and (2) the upper part of the helmet shall follow the contour of the mask it is attached to and either overlap or be attached in such a manner that the helmet will assist in impact-force absorption. Mohney’s mask extended 35 millimeters from the front of his helmet and the helmet and mask were asymmetrical.”
During the accident, pieces of the mask became dislodged, which the plaintiffs contend was the reason for the severity of the injury.
Central to the case were the reports of the plaintiffs’ experts, Richard Collins, Ph.D. (Collins) and Norman Johanson (Johanson). The district court excluded Collins’ testimony because “while Dr. Collins has performed mathematical calculations, the Court has found these calculations and the methods employed to be suspect and unreliable.”
In affirming the ruling, the appeals court noted that Collins did not “attempt to replicate the incident, perform any manner of accident reconstruction or conduct any relevant technical or scientific testing of the helmet/facemask combination (using either the incompatible components present in this case or compatible helmets and masks).
“Second, Dr. Collins did not cite any published work to buttress his opinion, nor could he because Dr. Collins’ theory has not been subject to peer review and publication.
“Third, not only does Dr. Collins’ opinion that Mohney’s spinal injury could occur as the result of a face-first impact lack general acceptance within the relevant scientific community, it is not accepted in any scientific community.
”Fourth, Dr. Collins performed his calculations based on a series of assumptions (including the theory of Johanson regarding the abrupt release of the J-clip rejected by the district court (as discussed below). Dr. Collins admitted that he did not utilize the actual data as input in the mathematical equations to support his theory but rather used an ‘illustration of parameters,’ i.e., estimates.”
The appeals court also agreed with the lower court that Johanson did not conduct “adequate testing to support his opinion.
“First, there is no evidence that the ‘test’ conditions accurately replicated or even approximated those at the time of the incident.
“Second, Johanson cited no research or publications quantifying the impact forces (vibrations) necessary to cause the screw-nut combinations to become loose.
“Third, Johanson’s conclusions are further undermined because Johanson: (i) assumed (but did not know) the remaining screw-nut combinations on the left-hand side J-clip were the same as those on the right side, (ii) did not attempt to determine the thread class of the screws or test whether the thread class of the left-hand side screw-nut combinations was sufficient, but rather just made the assumption that they were not, and (iii) failed to support his opinion with any objective testing or analysis (i.e., using any control standards).
Turning to the appeal of the summary judgment ruling, the appeals court noted that by excluding plaintiffs’ expert testimony “there is no basis upon which plaintiffs can demonstrate that Bauer was at fault for, or is a proximate cause of, the resulting injury.”
Second, it agreed with the district court that Bauer “was merely a manufacturer of a component part (the helmet),” not the manufacturer of the head protection system, which was claimed to have caused the injury.
”A component manufacturer can only be deemed liable for product liability purposes if it assembles, designs or otherwise integrates such component into a design which creates a final product. See O.R.C. § 2307.71(A)(9)(2005); Leibreich v. A.J. Refrigeration, Inc., 67 Ohio St.3d 266, 271, 1993 Ohio 12, 617 N.E.2d 1068 (1993); Miles v. Kohli & Kaliher Assocs., Ltd., 917 F.2d 235, 245 (6th Cir. 1990)(supplier of bridge components also provided information on how to assemble all components and was therefore a manufacturer for the purposes of products liability).”
Mohney et al. v. USA Hockey, Inc. et al., 6th Cir.; No. 04-3227; 7/14/05
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiffs) Fred C. Jug, Jr., of Brandt, Milnes & Rea, Pittsburgh, PA and James R. Oates of Oates & Oates, Merrillville, IN. (for defendant) Stephen D. Straus of Traub, Eglin, Lieberman, Straus, Hawthorne, NY


Articles in Current Issue