Yamaha Rumbles Into Rough Terrain, Battling Lawsuits Over Its Rhino Off-Road Vehicle

The Yamaha Rhino roared onto the market in 2003, a new breed of off-road vehicle that first drew raves — and then, an avalanche of lawsuits.

Lawyers for the victims claimed the hot-selling Rhino had design flaws that led to rollover crashes and gruesome injuries — including crushed heads, arms and legs and amputations when riders were smashed beneath the 1,100-pound machines. Even a Yamaha vice president was hurt, his toes broken in the rollover of a Rhino prototype, when he and the president of one of the company’s subsidiaries were on a trail ride, court records show.

So far, Yamaha has more than held its own in court. Of the five Rhino cases that have gone to trial, four ended in defense verdicts — including a pair of Yamaha victories last month in California and Alabama. The only exception: a $317,000 damage award in May in Georgia. The initial results “demonstrate in no uncertain terms that the Rhino is a safe and defect-free vehicle,” said Paul Cereghini, a lawyer representing Yamaha.

Yet Yamaha still faces about 700 injury and wrongful death claims, and the early victories belie its huge legal exposure. Plaintiff lawyers discount the company’s courtroom success, saying Yamaha cherry-picked cases in which drivers arguably were careless. They point out that Yamaha has quietly paid settlements in at least 40 Rhino cases, some on the eve of trial.

An investigation by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which found that many Rhino crashes occurred under seemingly benign conditions, has provided ammunition for the plaintiffs. “Of the rollover-related deaths and hundreds of reported injuries,” the agency declared in March, 2009, “many appear to involve turns at relatively low speeds and on level terrain.’’ The agency said it has received reports of 70 deaths in Rhino crashes.

All told, it has been a rough ride for a vehicle that created a new category of off-road machines, called side-by-sides or ROVs (recreational off-highway vehicles). The Rhino, which looks a bit like a golf cart with attitude, has a steering wheel and seats for two — unlike all-terrain vehicles, or ATVs, which have handlebars and are ridden like motorcycles. It also comes with safety features such as seatbelts and a rollcage.

However, plaintiffs contend the Rhino is dangerously unstable due to its narrow stance, high ground clearance and lack of a rear differential to help in turning. They argue that after putting a dangerous vehicle on the market, Yamaha failed for years to address reports of injuries and deaths. Many injuries would have been avoided, they say, had the company acted sooner to equip Rhinos with doors to hold in riders’ legs and feet when the vehicles tipped. Yamaha added doors in the 2008 model year.

Yamaha says the Rhino is safe and well-designed, and that injuries invariably stem from riders failing to follow instructions or trying risky stunts. “Virtually every Rhino-related incident involves at least one warned against behavior (such as failure to wear a seatbelt and/or helmet, underage driver, excessive speed, alcohol/drugs or inattention to terrain/collision),” according to a company statement.

With about 140 subsidiaries and affiliates worldwide and sales of $12.8 billion in 2009, Japan-based Yamaha is a power in power sports — a leading producer of motorcycles, snowmobiles and watercraft, along with off-road vehicles.

The company conceived the Rhino as a trail-blazer in more ways than one, describing it in internal documents as the “new generation of off-road vehicle for outdoor man,” or NGV. It was to be the go-anywhere option for hunters and fisherman, along with aging off-roaders wanting something easier to ride than an ATV and the ability to take along a friend. Yamaha touted the vehicle’s off-road prowess with a made-up term — “terrainability.” “Don’t Just Tackle Tough Terrain,” boasted a Rhino ad. “Make It Say Uncle.”

It was given a narrower track and higher ground clearance than other side-by-sides, good for crawling over rocks and through tight spaces. But just as a stool tips more easily than an easy chair, experts say a narrower, taller vehicle is more apt to tip in sharp turns or uneven terrain. However, the Rhino’s narrow stance was promoted as a major plus. A marketing video showed it fitting snugly in the bed of a pickup, eliminating the need to pull a trailer.

Rhino sales topped 150,000 in the first few years, and industry rivals scrambled to bring out side-by-sides of their own. But there were problems from the start.

In October, 2003, just days after launch, a Yamaha dealer in Virginia reported injuries to two employees whose Rhino tipped while going about 5 miles per hour, according to company phone logs produced in the Rhino litigation. The same month, another dealer reported being “concerned about stability” after a technician rolled over a Rhino on a paved lot. During a test drive at a Minnesota dealership in November, 2004, a customer suffered a broken leg and ruptured spleen when a Rhino tipped. In Florida the following year a customer broke his ankle while on a test ride with a salesman.

Company records also show that at least 25 Yamaha employees and test drivers experienced rollovers in Rhinos or Rhino prototypes, and that several were injured. Among them were Jean-Claude Olivier, president of Yamaha France, and Ike Miyachi, a Yamaha vice president.

Yamaha Executive Ike Miyachi broke his toes when a Rhino prototype tipped over.

Miyachi broke his toes in the crash at the Turkey Bay Off-Highway Vehicle Area in Kentucky in July, 2002, court documents and depositions show. The Rhino prototype in which he was riding was being driven by Keisuke “Casey” Yoshida, president of Yamaha Motor Manufacturing Corp. of Newnan, Ga., when it rolled over after descending a hill. At a meeting a few weeks later, Yoshida raised a question: “Casey wants update on instability of vehicle for future liability cases,” the minutes said.

Indeed, Miyachi’s injury followed what would be a common injury scenario — a rider’s leg coming out through the open door space either unintentionally or as a protective reflex when the Rhino tips. In lawsuits triggered by severe leg injuries, Yamaha has blamed plaintiffs for failing to heed its warnings to always keep their legs inside. However, in a 2005 deposition, a former senior executive and attorney with Yamaha Motor Corp. USA, in Cypress, Calif., testified that such warnings are of dubious value in an accident because riders don’t have time to think.

“What you do or do not do in a rollover or tipover is pretty much involuntary,” Emroy Watson, the Yamaha executive said. “You can’t really make a decision…So to tell someone to do A,B, or C in an accident doesn’t make a lot of [sense] from a communication standpoint.”

His testimony came in the case of Milton D. Grimes, among the first to sue and settle a Rhino case.

Milton Grimes suffered a serious leg injury and settled his lawsuit against Yamaha.

A former sheriff’s deputy and school construction planner, Grimes bought a Rhino in September, 2004, to haul brush and water trees on his rural land near Bakersfield. Soon after, he tried it out for the first time on desert scrubland near his home. Traveling about 10 to 15 miles per hour on flat, rough ground, Grimes said he was making a right turn when the Rhino tipped and smashed his left leg into the ground. He managed to crawl away in search of help, but didn’t get very far. When Grimes failed to arrive home within a few hours, his son went looking and found him by following the Rhino’s tracks.

Grimes almost lost his mangled leg, but after nine operations it was saved. He regained the ability to walk, but said he has limited mobility and chronic pain. His lawsuit ended in a confidential settlement.

“I just wish that nobody else would have to go through what I have been through — and other people have been through worse,’’ Grimes said. “Anybody who gets on one of these (Rhinos) should be aware they’re dangerous.”

Though there are Rhino cases throughout the country, the vast majority have been grouped together in three venues. About 165 cases are pending in the superior court of Orange County, Calif., where Rhino distributor Yamaha Motor Corp. USA., is based.

More than 150 cases have been filed in state court in Gwinnett County, Ga., home to the unit that produces the Rhino, Yamaha Motor Manufacturing Corp. About 270 federal cases have been consolidated for discovery purposes in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky.

In its four courtroom victories, Yamaha has been able to put the onus on the Rhino driver. In July, for example, jurors in Orange County, Calif., found Yamaha not liable after the company presented evidence that the injured plaintiff had been drinking prior to crashing his Rhino. The company’s lone defeat came in May in Gwinnett County, Ga., in the case of Roger McTaggart, a 38-year-old gravedigger who suffered severe leg injuries when his Rhino tipped.

Yamaha has come under regulatory scrutiny, too. Pressured by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the company in March, 2009 announced a “free repair program” meant to enhance the Rhino’s handling and stability — basically a recall in all but name. While insisting the Rhino was in no need of improvement, Yamaha appeased the commission by agreeing to install spacers on the rear axles to widen the vehicle’s stance and add protective doors on Rhinos that didn’t already have them. The company also offered to give a $100 coupon toward the purchase of a helmet to owners who watched a safety video.

Other side-by-side models are being examined, too. Through July of this year, the safety commission said it had received reports of 152 side-by-side fatalities, 82 of them involving vehicles other than the Rhino. Agency staff recently purchased several popular models to conduct stability tests that will be used in drafting safety standards for all side-by-sides.

At a meeting in late July, officials with the Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Assn., an industry group that includes Yamaha, urged the commission to abandon its rule-making to give voluntary standards being developed by the industry a chance to work. Agency officials said they will push forward, however, calling industry proposals inadequate.

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Myron Levin - FairWarning

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Myron Levin is editor of FairWarning.

19 comments to “Yamaha Rumbles Into Rough Terrain, Battling Lawsuits Over Its Rhino Off-Road Vehicle”

  1. Jackson

    My God just think how many ways one could get just as injured or killed doing other activities?
    We can’t and don’t live in a protective bubble, it’s time people get some responsibilities and swim away from the shallow end of the pool.
    I can get killed in a Volvo just as fast as walking across the street, you tap the Dragons nose to many times your going to get whacked by it’ tail or swallowed whole.
    Don’t be monkey see Monkey Do because Mikey Mountain Dew jumped a bus with his amped up gulf cart, be responsible,read the instructions get a helmet wear a harness take your time.
    Freaking sue happy country we have become!!

  2. mike

    Bought a 2004 when they first came out, and it got rolled 4 times, 2 by me and twice by my buddies. One friend flipped it on his ankle and sprained it but in all four incidents speed and wreckless driving was involved. Yes they are tippy and dangerous…..its an ATV! Not one time did I say hmmm let’s sue yamaha. Awesome machine, and love them. Bougt an 08 brand new and love it as much as the old one and the only rollover on this one was on EXTREMELY off camber terrain. People…..don’t blame yamaha, blame yourself because you drive like an idiot or just plain suck at driving! My second rhino has 2200 mi…one flip old one didn’t have odometer probably 5000 mi 4 flips. Of the 7000 mi or so no roll was 5 to 10 mph turning but due to agressive driving. The verdict it in……..BAD DRIVERS! Yamaha continue to build this indestructable machine and if you suck at driving stick to your car on paved roads

  3. Chris Baum

    As a 6 year Rhino owner, I have been happy with the safety and performance of my Rhino. I have put thousands of safe, fun miles on it. My kids also ride it and none of us have ever come close to rolling it. I have personally kicked it sideways at 30 miles per hour at the dunes, no problem. These are off road vehicles. It even says that in the warnings. Ride with common sense and there will be no problems. Ride like and idiot, there will be problems.

  4. Chuckie

    I luv da Rhino yo-shizzle.

  5. William Oakes

    ATTENTION AMERICA – Your brains are for more than making squishy noises when you turn your head too fast. Stop listening to what the rest of your redneck buddy’s tell you and read something for yourself. America was based on the right to think for ones self, and we have let our forefathers down. Americans run around like little tape recorders, recording someone else’s opinions and playing them back for everyone else as their own. Do your own research, make your own decisions, KNOW WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT BEFORE YOU OFFER YOUR OPINION. If you have made it this far to read this article and it’s comments, then, you have the ability to find out the truth for yourself!!!!!!!!!

    Riding a rhino is like playing Russian roulette, just because you have seen them driven where everyone made it out safely DOES NOT mean that it’s not dangerous. People come to these articles and offer opinion’s that the rhino is completely safe, yet, Yamaha and the U.S. government’s CPSC have both stated that it CAN and WILL tip over at low speeds. People fuss and fuss about accepting one’s responsibility. As a plaintiff against Yamaha, we want the same thing. Everyone that has lost family to the side-by-sides, everyone that has been seriously hurt, even down to the people that just had a little sprain or a couple of bruises; these people have paid their price. Alot of these people have paid this price EVERYDAY since this happened, whether it be the price of missing a loved one or the price of living with a disability. They pay this price and have no lawyers to say they don’t have to.

    What of Yamaha’s responsibility!! Obviously the argument that there is nothing wrong with the rhino is null and void. The public face of Yamaha still has yet to acknowledge the defects of the rhino but there are numerous documents (also available for you to view online) from high ranking personnel (including one of Yamaha’s Vice President’s that had his toes broken in a low speed rollover) that will attest to the contrary. Everyone is upset and scared of losing their favorite toys. Everyone is still upset over the three wheeler. We are not trying to take your side-by-sides and we are not responsible for the three wheeler. We do not want Yamaha to shut down. I personally have been a Yamaha fan since childhood. Yamaha made the dirt bike that was the first I got to ride by myself as an 8 yr. old. Yamaha made the first street bike I owned at 14 yr’s old. I have ridden many Yamaha’s since and (depending on the outcome of my case against Yamaha) probably will continue to ride Yamaha. We want Yamaha to accept it’s own part of the responsibility and to pay a price equal to the price we have paid or are still paying. With acknowledgment of their mistake we want yamaha to revamp the side-by-sides, I personally would love to see a rhino that did what it was made to do what it claimed it could do at the time of my injury no less.

    Finally to those of you who won’t listen, those of you too stubborn to see what’s right there in front of you, those of you that will read this article and subsequently this comment, and still continue to bash us, I ask you for respect and consideration. Many people have been killed while riding their Rhino. Think of the people that will be reading your comments. These people will include parents who lost children, now-widows that have lost spouses, and many other people that have suffered or still are suffering.

  6. Mike

    It’s interesting to read all of these comments from people claiming that the Rhino CANNOT tip at 15 mph and that the thousands and thousands of drivers who have been injured or killed across the United States are all reckless, drunk idiots. The truth is that Yamaha and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have already acknowledged that the Rhino can — and sometimes does — tip even at low speeds and even on flat terrain. The original warnings indicated that the vehicle can tip at “high-speed, sharp turns.” In late 2006, Yamaha amended those warnings to indicate that tips can (and do) occur even at low speeds or from a complete stop. Also, for those of you who are unaware, a high-ranking Yamaha employee was seriously injured when a Rhino tipped. Unfortunately, Yamaha hid this fact and never prepared any kind of written report documenting the low-speed roll that injured one of its Vice Presidents. While some (or maybe many) of these cases are undoubtedly driver error, there are a number of design flaws in this particular machine — no doors, shoddy seatbelts, topheavy/narrow, right-mounted fuel tank, substandard warnings, and misleading marketing that suggests that you can use these Rhinos on far more extreme terrain than what they are now claiming.

  7. debbie wilson

    For those of you that think a Rhino cannot tip over at low speeds… you are absolutely WRONG. It happened and will continue to happen if Yamaha does not make this vehicle safer. I experienced a rollover going around a turn, on level surface at about 15mph. I think it is a shared responsibility between the maker and owner… makers have a responsiblity to ensure it’s safety and owners are responsible for riding the vehicle within it’s limits. Many, many people have been killed and seriously injured and there is no way all of those accidents were owner-error.

  8. EB

    Everybody’s always looking to blame someone else for their own decisions and actions. It’s pretty dang sad that this once great Country is being held hostage by sheister attorneys and the idiots that hire them. I believe that one dudes story… NOT! 10 MPH rollover? Puh-leeze! I’m hoping that the losing party is paying for the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees in all those cases, so their fraudulent claims will come to an end.

  9. Matthew

    Responsibility. Good onya Daryl – totally agree. We make our own choices, and when you’re getting on an off-road vehicle with 0 experience and a happy-go-lucky cavalier attitude, you know somewhere in your heart that you’ve made a choice to play with fire.
    Anybody with a conscience to speak of could never, ever, shift the blame after asking himself these questions – Was I properly equipped? Did I read the manual and all safety precautions? Did I have the necessary experience and skills to be driving this vehicle the way I did?
    I’m sorry for those who have suffered, but please, calm down, take a step back and think hard. Is it REALLY somebody else’s fault??

  10. DUNE DUMMY 29

    WE HAVE HAD OUR RHINO FOR 4 YEARS & 2500 MILES. NO ROLLOVERS, NOT EVEN A LEEN. EVERY ACCIDENT THAT I HAVE EVER SEEN OR HEARD OF, WAS OPERATOR ERROR & NOT FOLLOWING THE LABELS ON THE RHINO. MOSTLY UNDER AGE INEXPIERENCED DRIVERS OR DRIVING UNDER THE INFLUENCE. COMMON SENSE IS A THING OF THE PAST TO A LOT OF PEOPLE. RHINOS ARE VERY SAFE. FOLLOW THE RULES & YOU WILL BE FINE. ENOUGH WITH THE LAWSUITS ALLREADY. TAKE RESPONSIBILTY FOR YOUR OWN DUMB ACTIONS.

  11. LCB

    Plaintiff lawyers discount the company’s courtroom success, saying Yamaha cherry-picked cases in which drivers arguably were careless.

    Uh huh. I love how a loss makes plaintiff lawyers turn on clients so quickly that you can’t even see them before they disappear under the bus wheels. Plaintiff lawyers wouldn’t try a case if they didn’t think their client had a viable story. Maybe a great deal or all the cases actually exist because of careless people. Ever think of that?

    Oh, by the way, the Rhino is mindblowingly easy to drive and the descriptions of these accidents plaintiff lawyers try to peddle are utterly non-credible with even 5 minutes of seat time.

  12. OWL

    Its sad that citizens of the US feel that someone else should be responsible for our own actions. You should also sue McDonalds or making your ass fat and Chevron for polluting your air. Maybe we should invoke a comprehenson exam at the purchase counter.

  13. Terry

    Man, I hate it when I am driving my Rhino and it tipps over while traveling at a low speed on level ground….
    Come on people! Really? They don’t just randomly tip over! As with any “extreme sport” there are risks. Do people sue when they crash on their motorcycle or quads? Probably, but that doesn’t make it right.
    I can pretty much guarantee that ALL accidents were due to operator error, not machine fault. Push something beyond it’s design limits and you are asking for trouble. All this “let’s sue everyone for something that’s my fault” has got to stop!

  14. Jo Ann Oxsen

    Our 2007 Yamaha Rhino has doors (article said 2008 model first to have doors), is street legal (in Arizona) and we love it. Have had no mishaps.

  15. Darryl Skelton

    While I truly feel sorry about anyone injured or killed, Off-roading is dangerous! The Rhino is safe and offers a great platform for a lot of people to enjoy off-roading.. Unfortunately, with a great platform comes a lot of people with little or no experience off roading! They think they can hope in it and drive like their 87 Corolla.. Nope, it ain’t that easy.. All they labels and warnings in the world won’t help because we don’t read them!!!!!

    Look we all need to take responsibility for our actions or lack there of!!! What is next ban bicycles, kids soccer.. How ’bout we ban ambulance chasing Lawyers that pu dollar signs in poor peoples eyes! I crashed my Yamaha WR450 and it was my fault, the last thing I would have thought is, “Hey I’m going to sue Yamaha or anyone for he accident and in suing injury!”

    I have a Rhino and after thousands of miles, I have not crashed once, or any one that has driven it!! Rhino un-safe, nope, people are un-safe..

    Again my heart goes out to any one that has been injured or killed in an accident!

  16. Duane Paulsen

    there is no way that doing 10-15 mph one of these will flip. I’ve driven these before, no POSSIBLE WAY. More then likely he was playing around and had the throttle pinned.

    What ever happended to being responsible for your own actions?

    Like I said, I’ve driven these at plus 30 mph and cranked the wheel into a turn, no rollover, I’m still standing, still walking and the Rhino was still upright.

  17. Zach

    Hey, Myron! Great article! Get those guys!

  18. Sue

    Once again Myron your articles have brought great awareness to the public. Thanks for being the person who points out that ATV’s and ROHV’s are very dangerous machines!

  19. Carol P-N

    Great article Myron.

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