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Yamaha’s Legal Engine Has Kept Its Rhino Off-Road Vehicle Going

Yamaha Rhino

WASHINGTON — Three years ago, Yamaha Motor Co. faced a grave threat to one of its most popular U.S. products, the Rhino off-road vehicle. Regulators were questioning the Rhino design’s safety, and lawsuits were piling up from people who said the vehicle was prone to potentially deadly rollover accidents.
Today, sales have declined but the storm appears to largely be over. The company has successfully employed a two-pronged strategy — playing tough with plaintiffs’ lawyers in court and tender with regulators. It has also settled more than 100 suits, according to a court document.
A Yamaha spokesman said the economy has hurt off-road vehicle sales but it is starting to see an improvement, including for the Rhino.
The Rhino situation underscores the difficult choices companies must make when their products come under fire from regulators and plaintiffs lawyers. Yamaha says that even though it made product changes to appease regulators, it stands by the original design, and it is appealing a $317,000 judgment in May 2010 in Gwinnett County, Ga., the only trial verdict it has lost.
Yamaha’s legal strategy in the cases it has chosen to fight is one that some companies are reluctant to pursue: blaming customers for engaging in unsafe behavior. In one trial last month in Warren County, Ohio, jurors felt the death of a 10-year-old girl was due in part to her failure to wear a helmet, and they declined to award damages to her parents. Their decision to refuse damages came even though most jurors answered “yes” when asked if the Rhino was defective in its design or in the way Yamaha warned riders about hazards or described its capabilities.
Yamaha has deflected much of the heat from regulators by modifying the Rhino’s design. To help reduce the chance of rollover, it installed a spacer on the rear wheels and removed a rear anti-sway bar. It installed half doors and passenger handholds on Rhinos that didn’t already have them, to help keep occupants’ arms and legs inside during a rollover.
As part of a March 2009 agreement with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Yamaha offered to make the changes on Rhinos already on the market, an action regulators said covered 145,000 vehicles. The CPSC is pursuing still tougher standards for the Rhino and other similar vehicles, known as recreational off-road vehicles, or ROVs.
Meanwhile, Yamaha has scored a string of victories in the cases involving Rhino accidents that have gone to trial. Yamaha has won or avoided paying damages in eight of nine product liability lawsuits taken to trial and resolved as recently as this month — a track record it says has helped to persuade plaintiffs in at least 200 other suits to withdraw their cases and claims.

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