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.