Defense Verdict Returned in Another Yamaha Rhino Product Liability Lawsuit

For the second time in the past month, a state court jury has returned a defense verdict in a Yamaha Rhino product liability lawsuit filed after the all-terrain vehicle (ATV) rolled over, reinforcing Yamaha’s apparent strategy of settling the stronger cases and only allowing cases with certain weaknesses to reach a jury.

On Monday, a California jury in Orange County reached a 9 to 3 decision that the manufacturer’s design was not responsible for a Yamaha Rhino rollover accident that left 59-year old Daniel Swainston with a severe leg injury, after it was crushed under the weight of the ATV.

In this case, the plaintiff alleged that design defects and a lack of safety features allowed the Yamaha Rhino to rollover while it was being operated at a low speed in Sequoia National Forest in 2006. At the time of the accident, the ATV was being operated by Swainston’s 14-year old son, even though the vehicle contained warnings that drivers should be at least 16 years old.

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Late last month, an Ohio jury returned a defense verdict in another product liability lawsuit over the Yamaha Rhino, which was brought by the family of Ellie Sands, a 10 year old girl who was killed in a 2007 roll-over accident. In that case, the jury found that the Yamaha Rhino is a defectively designed vehicle, but determined that the driver was at fault for the child’s death in the rollover. Following the accident, the driver, Nils McElroy, pled guilty to vehicular homicide and served 90 days in jail.

More than 700 people have filed a Yamaha Rhino lawsuit over injuries sustained when the vehicle rolled over, often occurring at slow speeds on flat surfaces. All of the cases involve similar allegations that the vehicle’s design makes it prone to roll-over due to a high center of gravity, narrow wheel base and small turning radius. In addition, plaintiffs argue that Yamaha sold the Rhino ATV without adequate warnings or safety features that could have prevented many of the injuries.

Last month, we reported that Yamaha Rhino settlement agreements have been reached in more than 100 lawsuits, in an apparent effort by the manufacturer to avoid trial in some of the stronger cases.

In the lawsuits that Yamaha has allowed to reach a jury, they have been largely successful in defending themselves. Defense verdicts have now been returned in seven out of the eight Yamaha Rhino product liability trials that have reached a jury so far.

The only plaintiff’s verdict came in May 2010, when a Georgia jury awarded $317,000 in compensation for a leg injury suffered in a Yamaha Rhino accident. In that case, the plaintiff was wearing a seatbelt and was driving at a low speed on level, grassy terrain when the Rhino rolled over.

Prior defense verdicts have largely turned on the individual facts and circumstances of each case, with most involving complicating issues such as modifications that were made to the vehicle after it was sold, failure of the plaintiff to use the provided seatbelt, consumption of alcohol around the time of the accident or operation of the ATV by a minor.

Although details have not been released about the terms of the agreements to settle Yamaha Rhino lawsuits reached by the manufacturer, court documents released last month confirm that Yamaha is continuing with informal settlement negotiations in other cases that are being prepared for trial.


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