Southeast Texas jury finds Yamaha not negligent in first Rhino rollover trial

David Yates Aug. 27, 2009, 9:38am

It only took a few hours for Southeast Texas jurors in the first trial over Yamaha Rhino all-terrain vehicle rollovers to return a swift ruling of no negligence -- a verdict in the company's favor that could have far reaching effects.

With hundreds of Yamaha ATV suits pending in courts around the country, the victorious outcome obtained in Orange County may influence how Yamaha proceeds with similar litigation.

The product liability trial of Johnny Ray vs. Yamaha Motor Co. kicked off Aug. 18 and ended Aug. 27.

Jurors in the Orange County District Court of Judge Buddy Hahn were tasked to decide if Yamaha Motor Co. cut costs and negligently placed a defective off-road vehicle into the stream of commerce.

The day before deliberations began, jurors were reminded by an engineer that there are "no publishable standards" on ATVs like Yamaha's Rhino and, as far as rollovers go, the Rhino is "very resistant."

On Aug. 26, Lee Car, president of Carr Engineering, testified that his company thoroughly tested Yamaha's Rhino and found its crash avoidance capabilities to be on par with similar vehicles on the market, such as Polaris' Razor and Ranger ATVs.

"No vehicle is rollover proof," Carr testified, adding that the Rhino is "very resistant" to tilting and would not "roll over in normal use."

The case began when the 13-year-old Forest "Eddie" Ray was killed while operating a Yamaha Rhino more than two years ago. His parents sued Yamaha on his behalf in Orange County District Court, alleging the Rhino was "defectively designed" and prone to rollovers.

Specifically, the plaintiffs argued that 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.

Carr also testified that, unlike most other vehicles, "there is no publishable standard" on ATVs like the Rhino, saying there is no requirement for ATVs to have rear differentials installed.

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 rollover 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 differential gears more of a "demerit" and safety problem than a 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."

Disputing the plaintiffs' arguments that Yamaha was trying to skimp on costs, Shiraishi testified that Yamaha actually increased 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 the company claims it warns all drivers the ATV is strictly for off-road use only and cautions occupants to wear seatbelts and protective gear.

The defense argued that 13-year-old Ray was left unsupervised and wasn't wearing a helmet or seatbelt.

As the Southeast Texas Record reported in July, 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 was composed of eight men and five women, one of whom is African American.

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

The plaintiffs were represented in part by attorney Troy Rafferty.

Case No. B070626- C

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