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Yarchak v. Trek Bicycle Corp.

June 25, 2002

JOSEPH M. YARCHAK, PLAINTIFF,
v.
TREK BICYCLE CORPORATION, VETTA U.S.A. LIMITED, SELLE ITALIA, S.R.L., AND BRUNSWICK CORP., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Irenas, District Judge

OPINION

Plaintiff, a resident of Connecticut, initially filed the instant action against Trek Bicycle Corporation ("Trek"), a New Jersey-based company, in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Camden County, asserting claims for negligence (Count I), breach of express and implied warranty (Count II), and strict products liability (Count III) arising out of injuries allegedly sustained by Plaintiff while using a defective bicycle seat. Following Trek's filing of a third party complaint against Defendants Vetta USA, Selle Italia, and Brunswick Corporation, companies allegedly involved in the manufacture, assembly, design and distribution of the bicycle seat at issue, Plaintiff was granted leave to file an Amended Complaint asserting his claims directly against those three additional defendants. *fn1 The case was subsequently removed to this Court, which has jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441 and 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Currently before the Court are Defendants Trek Bicycle Corporation, Vetta USA, and Selle Italia's respective motions for summary judgment. *fn2 Defendants Vetta USA and Selle Italia both seek summary judgment on the grounds that Plaintiff's claims for negligence (Count I) and strict products liability (Count III) are statutorily barred by the applicable statute of limitations. Defendant Vetta USA further moves for summary judgment on these claims on the grounds that there are no disputed issues of material fact regarding the company's lack of involvement in the manufacturing and/or selling of the allegedly defective product. *fn3 Defendants Trek and Selle Italia also move for summary judgment of Plaintiff's strict products liability claim (Count III) on the grounds that the proffered testimony of Plaintiff's two expert witnesses is inadmissible under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 702 and that, without such testimony, Plaintiff has failed, as a matter of law, to adduce sufficient proof to demonstrate a causal link between the allegedly offending bicycle seat and his injuries or that there is a danger associated with use of the bicycle seat about which Defendants had a duty to warn. Trek also moves for summary judgment on its third party claim for common law indemnification (Count II) against Co-defendant Selle Italia. *fn4

For the reasons set forth below, the Court will enter summary judgment with respect to Plaintiff's claims for negligence and strict liability against Defendants Selle Italia and Vetta USA, as such claims are barred, as a matter of law, by New Jersey's two-year statute of limitations for personal injury actions. However, the Court will deny Defendant Trek's motions for summary judgment against Plaintiff and Co-defendant Selle Italia.

I.

"[S]ummary judgment is proper `if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.'" Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)).

In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the Court must construe the facts and inferences in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. Pollock v. American Tel. & Tel. Long Lines, 794 F.2d 860, 864 (3d Cir. 1986). The role of the court is not "to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). However, "a party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleading, but... must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 248 (citation omitted).

II.

Plaintiff, Joseph M. Yarchak, first joined the Willimantic, Connecticut Police Department in 1989. In 1995, he became a member of the police department's bicycle patrol unit. (Pl.'s Dep. at 166). From June/July 1995 through the Fall of 1998, Officer Yarchak rode with the bicycle patrol unit approximately 10 to 12 miles per day, 5 days per week, for approximately 7 to 8 months a year. (Id. at 62, 64). The bicycle Officer Yarchak rode was equipped with a "Trek" seat from the time of its purchase until some point after February of 1998, when Officer Yarchack replaced the original seat with a "Biko" seat. (Id. at 49, 174). *fn5 Within a few months of beginning bicycle patrols in 1995, Officer Yarchak began regularly experiencing numbness and tingling in the groin area both during and immediately after riding the bicycle out on patrol. (Id. at 66). When these episodes occurred, he would dismount from his bicycle and walk around until the numbness subsided. The numbness or tingling would typically subside within 30 seconds to two minutes after stopping and dismounting from the bike's saddle. (Id. at 70). Yarchak had never experienced numbness or tingling in his groin area before joining the bicycle patrol unit and attributed the numbness to his extended periods of bicycle riding while on patrol. (Id. at 66; Selle Italia Br. Supp. Mot. Sum Judg. at Ex. B, p.166-167).

In an April 22, 1997 visit with his family doctor, Dr. Ralph La Guardia, Officer Yarchak reported a couple of instances in 1997 in which he was unable to maintain an erection. (Pl.'s Br. Opp., Exhibit A, p. 73-77). He had never before experienced any symptoms of erectile dysfunction or impotence. (Id. at 75). According to Officer Yarchak's deposition, there was no discussion during this visit regarding any possible link between his bike riding and these symptoms because, at the time, he did not yet think it was a serious problem or suspect that these symptoms might be related to the numbing or tingling sensation he often experienced while bicycle riding. (Id. at 76-77).

Over time, however, Plaintiff's condition became progressively worse. At some point just prior to September 18th, Plaintiff viewed a promotional spot for an upcoming episode of the television news show 20/20 featuring reports on, among other topics, the possible link between impotency and bicycle riding. (Id. at 82). Although he was not able to watch the original September 18th broadcast of this 20/20 episode, he viewed a tape of the program approximately "two weeks later," either the "end of September or beginning of October" 1997. (Id.). This broadcast featured an interview with Dr. Irwin Goldstein, a professor of urology at Boston Medical Center and a leading researcher into a possible connection between bicycle riding and sexual dysfunction. (Selle Italia Br. Supp. Mot. for Sum. Judg., Exhibit B, at 80). According to Plaintiff's deposition testimony, it was this report on 20/20 that "first raised the question in [his] mind that there could possibly be a connection" between his erectile dysfunction and his bicycle riding. (Pl.s Opp. Br. at 81).

On October 21, 1997, after having viewed the program, Officer Yarchak visited Dr. La Guardia and told him about the 20/20 program, expressing concern that his erectile dysfunction may be connected to prolonged periods of bicycle riding while on patrol. Dr. La Guardia discussed with Plaintiff the possibility of a connection between his bicycle riding and his impotence, and referred him to Dr. John Graham, a local urologist, for further examination. In notes dictated on the same day as Plaintiff's visit, Dr. La Guardia opined that Plaintiff' impotence may be related to "secondary pressure from the bicycle seat causing problems." (Selle Italia's Mot. Br. in Supp. of Mot. for Sum. Judg. at Ex. D). During a visit to Dr. Graham on November 10, 1997, Plaintiff explained that he was a bicycle policeman, that he rode his bicycle for extended periods of time, and that, based on the 20/20 episode, he was concerned about a possible link between his impotence and the bicycle riding. (Vetta U.S.A.'s Mot. Sum. Judg., Exhibit F, at 89).

On or about February 19, 1998, Plaintiff visited Dr. Irwin Goldstein at the Boston Medical Center for an initial consultation. (Pl.'s Dep. at 112). Dr. Goldstein is a professor of urology at the Boston University School of Medicine and one of the nation's leading researchers on impotence. His ongoing research into the link between erectile dysfunction and bicycle riding was featured on the September 18, 1997 broadcast of 20/20 which originally gave rise to Plaintiff's concerns about the link between his impotency and his bicycle seat. Following his visit with Dr. Goldstein, Plaintiff replaced his Trek bicycle seat with a seat sold by Biko. (Pl.'s Opp. Br. at Exhibit A, p. 174). As Plaintiff's opposition brief explains, the Biko seat is specifically designed to distribute pressure away from the perineal arteries underneath the genitals. After switching to the Biko seat, Plaintiff no longer experienced numbness or tingling in his groin area while on bicycle patrol. (Pl.'s Opp. Br. at 3). Approximately one year later, in February 1999, Dr. Goldstein conducted a diagnostic test, called an arteriogram, which, according to the doctor, revealed "specific blockage in the arteries that allow blood to flow to the penis" and confirmed a direct link between Officer Yarchak's impotence and the seat on his police department bicycle. Surgery performed on June 1, 1999 repaired Officer Yarchak's damaged arteries and appears to have rectified his erectile dysfunction.

On March 26, 1999, Officer Yarchak filed the instant action in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Camden County, against Trek Bicycle Corporation, the New Jersey-based seller and distributor of the bicycle seat which is alleged to have been the cause of his erectile dysfunction. *fn6 On August 1, 2000, Trek filed a notice of motion for leave to file a Third Party Complaint against Selle Italia, Vetta USA, and Brunswick Corporation, companies allegedly involved in the distribution, manufacture, and assembly of the seat. On September 8, 2000, with leave of the Superior Court, Trek filed a Third Party Complaint against these business entities. Plaintiff thereafter filed an Amended Complaint on October 10, 2000, with the Superior Court naming Vetta USA, Selle Italia, and Brunswick Corporation as additional party defendants in this products liability action. The case was subsequently removed to the District Court of New Jersey.

III.

Defendants Selle Italia and Vetta USA have moved for summary judgment with respect to Plaintiff's claims for negligence (Count I) and strict products liability (Count III) on the grounds that such claims are barred by New Jersey's statute of limitations. *fn7 New Jersey's statute of limitations governing personal injury claims, including claims sounding in negligence and strict products liability, is found at N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2, which states:

Every action at law for an injury to the person caused by the wrongful action, neglect or default of any person within this state shall be commenced within two years next after the cause of action shall have accrued.

The purposes of New Jersey's statute of limitations are two-fold: "(1) to stimulate litigants to pursue a right of action within a reasonable time so that the opposing party may have a fair opportunity to defend, thus preventing the litigation of stale claims, and (2) to penalize dilatoriness and serve as a measure of repose." Gantes, 145 N.J. at 486. As the New Jersey Supreme Court explained in Vispisiano v. Ashland Chemical Co., 107 N.J. 416 (1987), "[w]hen an injured party sleeps on his rights so long as to let the customary period of limitations expire, `the pertinent considerations of individual justice as well as the broader considerations of repose coincide to bar his action.'" Id. at 462 (quoting Farrell v. Votator Div. of Chemetron Corp., 62 N.J. 111 (1973)).

Ordinarily, a cause of action accrues at the time of the alleged injury. *fn8 This is because, in most cases, awareness of one's injuries is immediate and knowledge that someone is at fault is inherent in the nature of the injury or the circumstances in which it occurred. However, in order to alleviate the harsh results that might otherwise flow from a rigid or mechanical application of the statute of limitations, the New Jersey Supreme Court has devised an equitable principle known as the "discovery rule." Under the discovery rule, the accrual of a cause of action is delayed, in appropriate circumstances, until the injured party actually discovers, or by the exercise of reasonable diligence and intelligence reasonably should have discovered, that he may have a basis for an actionable claim. See Staub v. Eastman Kodak Company, 320 N.J.Super. 34, 42-43 (App. Div. 1999) (quoting Vispisiano, 107 N.J. at 419). The relevant question is not, however, whether plaintiff had knowledge of a specific basis for legal liability or a provable cause of action, but rather when plaintiff was aware, or reasonably should have been aware of "the existence of a state of facts that may equate in the law with a cause of action." Vispisiano, 107 N.J. at 426. As the New Jersey Supreme Court has explained, the discovery rule places "emphasis on the factual nature of an injured party's knowledge of a basis for a cause of action . . . [A] plaintiff must have an awareness of `material facts' relating to the existence and origin of his injury rather than comprehension of the legal significance of such facts." Lynch v. Rubacky, 85 N.J. 65, 73 (1981) (emphasis in original) (citing Burd v. New Jersey Tel. Co., 76 N.J. 284, 291-293); see also Kemp Industries, Inc. v. Safety Light Corp., 1994 WL 532130 at * 17 (D.N.J. 1994). Moreover, the statute of limitations is triggered by a prospective litigant's awareness of material facts which equate in the law with a cause of action, not conclusive proof of every material fact. See Hatco v. W.R. Grace & Co., 801 F.Supp. 1301, 1323 (D.N.J. 1992); Burd, 76 N.J. at 303 ("The proofs need not evoke a finding that plaintiff knew for a certainty that the factual basis was present. It is enough that plaintiff had or should have discovered that he `may have' a basis for a claim.") (citing Lopez v. Swyer, 62 N.J. 267, 272 (1973)).

Knowledge or discovery of the basis for an actionable claim will be imputed where the Plaintiff was aware or, by exercise of reasonable diligence, should have been aware: (1) that he has been injured; and (2) that the injury is due to the fault or neglect of an identifiable individual or entity. See Lynch, 85 N.J. at 70 ("the discovery rule centers upon an injured party's knowledge concerning the origin and existence of his injuries as related to the conduct of another person"). In Plaintiff's case, it is clear that he was aware of his injury or physical condition as early as April 22, 1997, over three years prior to filing his Amended Complaint against Defendants Selle Italia and Vetta USA. The more difficult question is when Plaintiff either knew or reasonably should have been aware that his physical condition was "due to the fault of another."

Discovering that one might have a basis for an actionable claim "means perceiving an injury and believing, or having reason to believe - with a degree of firmness that would lead a reasonable person to investigate the matter if he is interested in seeking redress - that his injury was probably caused by the fault of another. Certainty is not required." Eastman Kodak., 320 N.J. Super. at 45; see also, Savage v. Old Bridge-Sayerville Medical Group, P.A., 134 N.J. 241, 248 (1993). The first key issue in ascertaining when, for purposes of applying the discovery rule, the statute of limitations began to run on Plaintiff's products liability action is when Plaintiff was either aware or reasonably should have been aware of a potential causal link between his impotency and the bicycle seat - the product which is the subject of his products liability action. See generally, American Law of Products Liability 3d, § 47:36. The position of Plaintiff's counsel, as stated in Plaintiff's opposition brief, is that Officer Yarchak's cause of action against Trek and the other third-party defendants "did not begin to accrue until February 1999 when, after the arteriogram, Dr. Goldstein advised Officer Yarchak for the first time that his impotency was caused by the bicycle seat." (Pl.'s Opp. Br.). However, under the New Jersey Supreme Court's "discovery rule" jurisprudence, it is firmly established that a prospective litigant is not entitled to await specific medical confirmation of a connection between his physical symptoms and a product before the statute of limitations will begin to run. See Lapka v. Porter Hayden Co., 162 N.J. 545, 557 (2000); Vispisiano, 107 N.J. at 437. In other words, medical certainty regarding a plaintiff's medical condition and the causal relationship between his medical condition and a particular product is not required before a plaintiff will be deemed to have discovered the basis for a cause of action. Less clear, however, is at what point, prior to receiving specific medical confirmation of a possible causal link, a prospective litigant's cause of action will be deemed to have accrued.

Several New Jersey Supreme Court decisions have addressed the state of knowledge required to impute discovery of a possible causal relationship between plaintiff's injuries and a particular product and to trigger the running of the statute of limitations. See Burd, 76 N.J. 284 (1978); Vispisiano, 107 N.J. 416 (1987); Graves v. Church & Dwight Company, Inc., 115 N.J. 256 (1989); Lapka, 162 N.J. 545 (2000). As is evident from these decisions, the Supreme Court's consideration of this issue has produced few clear, consistently applied standards. Moreover, application of the discovery rule involves a highly fact-specific inquiry and will often vary depending on the nature and circumstances of the plaintiff's injury and the type of case involved. See Vispisiano, 107 N.J. at 434 ("[T]he nature of the information necessary and the quality of the requisite state of mind will of course vary from case to case, and more than that, from type of case to type of case"). Nevertheless, a review of these cases provides some indication of the nature and quality of the information which must be available to a prospective litigant before the statute of limitations will begin to run.

In Burd, a contractor's laborer, who had sustained a heart attack while working in a trench gluing together plastic pipe, brought a products liability action against the supplier and the manufacturer of the industrial glue, claiming that the glue contained a noxious substance which, given the confined environment in which he was working, was a substantial contributing factor in bringing about his heart attack. 76 N.J. at 287. Plaintiff had been working in the trench during the week preceding his heart attack and had experienced dizziness and light headaches while working with the glue, symptoms which would invariably subside within an hour after he finished work. Id. at 289. A physician who later examined plaintiff for purposes of pursuing a worker's compensation claim had drawn a connection between the glue and plaintiff's heart attack. Id. The Court concluded:

The regular incidence of lightheadedness and dizziness while using the glue, and the disappearance of the symptoms shortly after cessation of plaintiff's exposure thereto, together with the permissible inference from proofs that plaintiff realized the connection between the glue and the symptoms (although at trial he denied such knowledge), furnishes a substantial credible basis for an inference of knowledge by plaintiff at least shortly after the heart attack that the exposure to the fumes of the glue in the warm trench was in some way related to the attack. Id. at 292-293.

Under the circumstances, the Court concluded that within a short time after his heart attack, plaintiff possessed either actual or constructive knowledge of a possible causal relationship between the noxious industrial glue and his injuries, triggering the running of the statute of limitations. Id. at 293.

In Vispisiano, a former employee at a toxic-waste disposal site brought suit against the suppliers, processors, manufacturers, and distributors of the toxic-waste materials to recover damages for medical complications and physical ailments allegedly resulting from his exposure to toxic chemical wastes during the six months he was employed at the site. 107 N.J. at 419-420. The plaintiff had experienced recurring headaches during the six months he worked at the disposal site. Id. at 421. Plaintiff had also visited a co-worker in the hospital whom he learned had been exposed to chemicals while at work and was experiencing symptoms similar to his own. Id. at 422-23. Following this meeting, plaintiff began to suspect that his symptoms may be related to his possible exposure to noxious chemicals while at work and consulted with two physicians. While neither physician specifically "ruled out" the possibility that plaintiff's symptoms were attributable to occupational exposure to chemicals, both doctors offered what they believed were much more probable explanations for plaintiff's symptoms and either brushed aside or downplayed the possibility that plaintiff's deleterious medical condition was related to chemical exposure. Id. at 423-424.

The New Jersey Supreme Court ultimately reversed a grant of summary judgment on statute of limitations grounds after finding the information available to the plaintiff insufficient to put him on notice that his exposure to toxic chemicals might have caused the injuries that were the subject of his suit. The Court expressly noted that specific "medical confirmation" of causation is not necessary to trigger the statute of limitations, reaffirming a principle implicit in its decision in Burd. Id. at 437. However, the Court distinguished its decision in Burd on its facts and attempted to further clarify the state of knowledge or quality of available information necessary to charge a prospective litigant with awareness of a possible causal relationship between his injuries and a particular product. As the Court explained, the plaintiff's "uninformed - or, at least, medically uninformed - speculation after comparing notes with his [hospitalized co-worker] and the at-best-equivocal information obtained from his treating physicians" was not sufficient to trigger the running of the statute of limitations. Id. at 436. Rather, the Court held that, "before a toxic-tort plaintiff may be deemed to have the requisite state of knowledge that would trigger the running of the statute of limitations, his impression of the nature of the injury and its cause must have some reasonable medical support." Id. at 437. As the Court further explained, "We hasten to add that we do not insist on medical confirmation as such: a physician's willingness to include chemical poisoning in the differential diagnosis would probably suffice, as would any other reasonably reliable source of information." Id.

In Graves, the New Jersey Supreme Court, while not explicitly relying on the standard set forth in Vispisiano, essentially extended that case's holding to a products liability action alleging liability for failure to warn of the dangers of ingesting a commonly used household product.115 N.J. at 470. While on vacation in Martha's Vineyard, the plaintiff, William Graves, awoke sometime after midnight suffering from mild indigestion. Unable to find the over-the-counter medicine he ordinarily used to alleviate his discomfort, Mr. Graves decided to improvise. He remembered that as a child his mother had sometimes given him bicarbonate of soda to relieve his stomach aches. He poured some Arm & Hammer Baking Soda, which he had found in one of the kitchen cabinets, into a glass and filled the glass with water. After drinking several swallows, Mr. Graves immediately began experienced excruciating pain in his stomach and collapsed to the floor. He was rushed to Martha's Vineyard Hospital where he was diagnosed with a perforated viscus (a tear in the upper gastrointestinal tract region). The attending surgeon informed plaintiff's wife that his situation was critical and that emergency surgery would be necessary. After opening Mr. Graves's stomach to determine the ...


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