Yamaha Rhino (Credit: CBS News)

Yamaha Motors once again stands undefeated in court battles over injuries and deaths in crashes of its Rhino off-road vehicles.

In a unanimous ruling, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed a May, 2010 jury verdict favoring a rider who suffered a serious leg injury when his Rhino rolled over on top of him. Prior to Tuesday’s appeal decision, the $317,000 damage award to Roger McTaggart, a gravedigger from Blue Ridge, Ga., had been the only blemish on Yamaha’s record through nine courtroom trials.

But the appeals court declared that Taggart had assumed the risk of injuries when he bought his Rhino 660 in 2006. Further, the panel said the trial judge should have directed a verdict in Yamaha’s favor, rather than let the jury decide the case

Yamaha said in a prepared statement that the ruling confirmed that the Rhino “is a safe and useful off-road vehicle when driven responsibly.”

“We don’t agree with it, obviously,” said Andy Childers, a lawyer for McTaggart. “We think it was incorrect.” Childers said he will file a motion for reconsideration and, if that fails, seek review by the Georgia Supreme Court.

Yamaha has paid confidential settlements in hundreds of other Rhino cases, so the company’s trial record is not the whole story. However, the string of defense verdicts has tamped down the size of settlements, say people close to the litigation.

Introduced in the fall of 2003, the Rhino quickly became the top seller in a new category of off-road machines called ROVs (recreational off-highway vehicles), which differ from all-terrain vehicles, or ATVs, by including such features as safety belts and seating for two.

But as FairWarning has reported, within weeks of the Rhino’s launch, Yamaha began receiving the first reports of gruesome injuries—including mashed heads, arms and legs, as well as amputations, when the 1,100-pound vehicles tipped and landed on riders.

The company was hit by an avalanche of lawsuits, contending that the Rhino was defective due to a propensity to roll over at low speeds and on relatively flat ground, and inadequate protection to keep arms and legs from being crushed when the vehicles tipped. Yamaha has consistently maintained that the Rhino was safe and well-designed, and that injuries stemmed from riders failing to heed warnings or trying risky stunts.

But under pressure from litigation and the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, the company tweaked the design. Since 2007, it has included doors on new Rhinos to keep legs and feet inside in rollovers. And in March, 2009, it launched what it called “a free repair program” to retrofit Rhinos by removing the sway bar, installing spacers on rear axles to widen the stance, and putting doors on Rhinos that did not already have them.

At the peak of Rhino litigation in 2010, Yamaha faced 1,100 pending lawsuits and claims, a number that had dwindled by last month to 187, says Law360, an online legal news publication. A Yamaha spokesman on Wednesday declined to say how many settlements the company has paid.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect figure for the size of the damage award reversed on appeal. The verdict was for $317,000, not $347,000.

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