Remand of MDL Yamaha Rhino ATV Lawsuits Recommended

The federal judge presiding over the consolidated Yamaha Rhino ATV litigation has indicated that it is time to send the cases back to the district court where they were originally filed for trial, after the manufacturer has quietly settled nearly 200 cases and won most of the cases that made it to a jury. 

In February 2009, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation ordered that all Yamaha Rhino lawsuits filed in federal district courts throughout the United States would be consolidated before U.S. District Judge Jennifer B. Coffman in the Western District of Kentucky for pretrial proceedings.

All of the cases involved individuals who suffered serious and sometimes fatal injuries as a result of an ATV accident allegedly caused by design defects with the four-by-four Yamaha Rhino vehicle. Plaintiffs allege that the Yamaha Rhino is prone to rollover, causing serious injuries even when the vehicle is operated at slow speeds on flat surfaces.

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At one time, more than 325 lawsuits over the Yamaha Rhino were consolidated before Judge Coffman, and additional cases were filed in various state courts throughout the United States. However, there are currently only 52 cases left before Judge Coffman in the MDL.

In a Suggestion of Remand filed November 7, Judge Coffman indicated that the MDL has run its course and the unresolved cases should be returned back to the court where they were originally filed for individual trials.

Although Yamaha has maintained that their off-road vehicle was safely designed and provided adequate warnings and instructions, the company has agreed to pay settlements for Yamaha Rhino accidents in many cases.

Legal analysts have suggested that Yamaha pursued a strategy of settling the strongest cases and allowing the lawsuits with the weakest factual basis to proceed to trial, usually involving accidents with underage drivers or the use of alcohol. As a result, the company has successfully defended themselves at trial in all but one case.

Before February 2011, Yamaha had reportedly settled with about 30 plaintiffs. Between February and August, another 85 cases were settled, leaving about 166 cases. On August 2, the court was informed another 90 Yamaha lawsuits had been settled as well.

In the Suggestion of Remand, Judge Coffman indicated that at this point it is unlikely there will be any more settlements.

Among the cases that Yamaha did not settle and allowed to reach a jury, 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.

If the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation agrees to dissolve the federal MDL, the remaining cases would go back to their original districts for resolution, which would be the beginning of the last stages of Yamaha Rhino litigation.

Shortly after the Yamaha Rhino ATV was introduced in 2003, a large number of rollover accidents involving the vehicles began to be reported. In September 2006, Yamaha warned owners about the potential risk of Rhino rollover accidents, providing information about what consumers should do if the Rhino begins to tip over. However, critics argue that the Yamaha Rhino is an unstable, unreasonably dangerous vehicle and that the manufacturer failed to take steps that could have made the vehicles safer.

In 2009, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) launched an investigation into the vehicle after at least 46 occupant deaths were linked with the Yamaha Rhino. The CPSC then pressured Yamaha to suspend sales of the Yamaha Rhino 450, 660 and 700 models to make safety improvements.

Image Credit: 2008 Yamaha Rhino 700


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