First Yamaha Rhino trial under way in Orange

David Yates Aug. 26, 2009, 4:18am

What could prove to be a landmark case, a dozen Orange County residents have been tasked to decide if Yamaha Motor Co. cut costs and negligently placed a defective off-road vehicle into the stream of commerce.

With hundreds of Yamaha ATV suits pending in courts around the country, the outcome of the trial in Orange, which began Aug. 18, may influence how Yamaha proceeds with similar litigation.

After their 13-year-old son was killed operating Yamaha Rhino more than two years ago, the parents of Forest "Eddie" Ray filed suit on his behalf in Orange County District Court, alleging the Rhino was "defectively designed" and prone to roll-overs.

Specifically, the plaintiffs argue if Yamaha had chosen not to skimp on costs and equip the Rhino with a rear differential – gears found in the rear axle of vehicles that distribute drive shaft power to the wheels – Ray would be alive today.

Court records show Ray's skull was crushed under the weight of the Rhino when he flipped the ATV while making a turn from grass onto a paved road.

The plaintiffs claim rear differential gears, among other safety features, would have prevented the roll-over when the Rhino turned onto pavement.

However, according to the testimony of Yamaha engineer Nobuaki Shiraishi, the Rhino was designed to be an "exclusively off-road vehicle," making rear-deferential gears more of a "demerit" and safety issue rather than safety precaution.

"Yamaha would never allow production of an unsafe vehicle," Shiraishi testified through his Japanese translator, adding that Yamaha delayed production of the Rhino several times to ensure it met "all in house standards."

In contrast to the plaintiffs' arguments that Yamaha was trying to skimp on costs, he further testified that Yamaha was forced to increase the price of the Rhino by almost $500 because its engineers kept enhancing the ATV's safety features.

Since the start of the trial, it has been the defense of Yamaha that its Rhino is only for drivers 16 and older and claims it warns all drivers the ATV is strictly for off-road use only and always cautions occupants to wear seatbelts and protective gear.

The defense argues Ray, 13 at the time of the incident, was left unsupervised and wasn't wearing a helmet or seatbelt.

As the Record reported last month, Yamaha attempted to force the suit into arbitration after discovering an agreement the parents signed with the Rhino dealer. However, the Ninth Court of Appeals of Texas shot down Yamaha's appeal, opining that the company waived its right to arbitration.

The jury is composed of eight men and five women, one of whom is African American.

Judge Buddy Hahn, 163rd Judicial District, is presiding over the trial.

Yamaha is represented in part by attorney Jeffrey S. Hawkins of the San Antonio law firm Prichard, Hawkins, McFarland & Young.

The plaintiffs are represented in part by attorney Troy Rafferty.

Case No. B070626- C

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