Yamaha Motors won a key round in defense of its Rhino off-road vehicles Monday, when a state court jury in a closely watched case in Orange County, Calif., absolved the company of responsibility for a serious injury in a rollover crash.
In a 9-to-3 decision, the jury rejected the claims of Daniel Swainston, 59, of Bakersfield, who suffered a crushed leg in the crash of his Rhino in 2006.
Though Yamaha has faced about 700 defective product lawsuits stemming from injuries and deaths in Rhino accidents, the company is on a roll in the courtroom. Monday’s verdict marked its sixth straight favorable verdict and seventh in eight trials overall.
The win could prove especially discouraging to plaintiffs because the case was seen as something of a bellwether. It involved the most common Rhino injury scenario—a rollover in which the victim’s leg or foot comes through the open door space and is smashed between the 1,100-pound vehicle and the ground. Plaintiffs lawyers have claimed the Rhino is defective due to an unusual propensity to tip over and inadequate protection to prevent arms and legs from being crushed.
This story also published by:
The Bakersfield Californian
The Orange County Register
But in a victory statement, Yamaha said the verdict “showed that this unfortunate incident had nothing to do with the design of the product. The incident underscores the importance of following the safety recommendations on our products and in the owner’s manual, and to always operate the products in a safe and responsible manner.”
Neither Swainston nor his attorney, Gary Praglin, would comment.
Prior to Monday’s verdict, Yamaha’s victories included an Ohio case in which jurors found the Rhino was defective but did not hold the company liable. The suit was filed by parents of 10-year-old Ellie Sand, who died of head injuries when a Rhino tipped over at a church picnic. In its March 21 verdict, the jury ruled that the Rhino was defectively designed, but that the fatal accident was caused by the driver carrying several passengers, contrary to safety instruction.
A Wall Street Journal editorial trumpeted Yamaha’s success. “Maybe resistance to the plaintiffs bar isn’t futile,’’ it said. “A belief in one’s products is a company’s best defense, and more companies would benefit from fighting back.’’
Yamaha’s lone defeat resulted in a $317,000 damage award in Georgia.
Trial verdicts haven’t been the whole story, however. More than 100 cases have been settled out of court, according to one estimate, allowing Yamaha to avoid trying some of the more threatening cases and letting plaintiff lawyers cut their losses on the weaker ones. Trial outcomes can greatly affect the size of settlements, and the Swainston verdict could send more plaintiff attorneys toward the exits.
Japan-based Yamaha, which produces motorcycles, boats and snowmobiles along with off-road vehicles, had sales of nearly $15.5 billion in 2010. The lawsuits also name subsidiaries Yamaha Motor Corp. USA, of Cypress, Calif., which markets the Rhino, and Yamaha Motor Manufacturing Corp. in Newnan, Ga., where the vehicles are made.
Introduced in the fall of 2003, the Rhino quickly became the top seller in a new category of off-road machines. Resembling an amped-up version of a golf cart, Rhinos and its rival are known as ROVs (recreational off-highway vehicles) or “side-by-sides’’ because, unlike all-terrain vehicles, they have a seat for a passenger. More than 150,000 Rhinos have been sold.
Within weeks of the Rhino hitting the market, Yamaha began receiving the first reports of gruesome injuries—including mashed heads, arms and legs, as well as amputations, when Rhinos tipped and landed on riders.
In 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Commission opened an investigation focused in part on whether Yamaha had met a requirement to promptly inform the agency about a product that is defective or poses an unreasonable risk of serious injury or death. Companies can face substantial penalties for failing to comply.
The commission took the unusual step of issuing a subpoena for Yamaha records. In response, Yamaha provided a hard drive with some 58,000 documents, along with 62 DVDs.
Though Yamaha and commission officials have refused to give details, there are signs the agency’s probe is winding down. According to a February court filing in the Ohio case, CPSC lawyers have asked Yamaha to enter into settlement negotiations to resolve possible violations of the notice requirement. A Yamaha spokesman declined comment.
Yamaha representatives say the company has cooperated fully with the commission, and that there were no defects to report.
Even so, Yamaha made doors standard equipment on new Rhinos in 2007 to keep feet and legs inside in rollovers. Under pressure from the commission, Yamaha also announced a “free repair program’’ in March, 2009, a recall in all but name.
The safety improvements include removing the sway bar and installing spacers on rear axles of Rhinos to widen their stance and increase stability, and putting protective doors on Rhinos that don’t already have them. Through December, 2010, rear spacers had been put on about 48,000 Rhinos, according to records.
The repairs notwithstanding, the company continues to defend the Rhino’s original design, claiming that it has been used safely by more than 99 percent of owners. It insists that injuries invariably stem from riders failing to follow safety warnings or attempting risky stunts.
Swainston was injured on a trail ride in the Sequoia National Forest in September, 2006–his first spin on the Rhino 660 that he purchased a few days before. He was a passenger and his 14-year-old son Spencer was driving when the Rhino flipped and landed on his right leg, resulting in fractures and a degloving, in which a large swath of the skin of his leg was torn off. He had multiple surgeries and racked up more than $190,000 in medical bills.
Swainston testified during the three-month trial that the accident left his leg barely attached and put him at risk of bleeding to death.
“Spencer had put my belt around my leg to try and stop the bleeding, and I could see the terror in his eyes,” Swainston testified.
“I absolutely wanted to stay conscious. I did not want to go out and have him dealing with that. So I talked with him as much as I could,” Swainston said. “Talked about our family, talked about what I thought of him, kind of all the things you want to make sure you say if…you’re not going to make it. Important things.’’ Eventually, he was rescued by helicopter.
Yamaha lawyers said the Rhino flipped because Spencer made an unusually sharp turn. They blamed Swainston for letting his son drive, noting that the owner’s manual “recommended” that drivers be 16 and older. They also claimed that Swainston wasn’t wearing his seat belt, contrary to his assertions.