In the swath of Kentucky called the Land Between The Lakes, the Turkey Bay Off-Highway Vehicle Area is a rugged expanse of hills and woodlands crisscrossed by 100 miles of trails. Test drivers came here in July, 2002, to try out the Yamaha Rhino, a new breed of off-road vehicle then in development, and had a mishap that would resonate years later.
Keisuke “Casey” Yoshida, president of a U.S. subsidiary of Yamaha Motor Co. Ltd., was behind the wheel of a Rhino prototype. Ike Miyachi, a company vice president in charge of Rhino development, rode beside him in the passenger seat. After descending a long hill to flat ground, the Rhino tipped over, giving Miyachi a foot injury.
At a meeting weeks later, Yoshida raised a question that now seems prophetic. “Casey wants update on instability of vehicle for future liability cases,” according to minutes obtained by CBS News.
The Rhino was a hit, with more than 150,000 sold after its introduction 15 months later in fall, 2003. But the vehicle, which looks like a cross between a golf cart with attitude, and an all-terrain vehicle, or ATV, is at the center of a legal firestorm. At least 59 riders have been killed in Rhino accidents, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
More than 440 wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits are pending, and Yamaha has settled others. Many stem from rollovers in which drivers or passengers fell or were flung through the open door space to the ground, then smashed by the 1,100 pound vehicle. Adults and children as young as 3 years old have suffered gruesome injuries, including amputated limbs and crushed legs, arms or heads.
Plaintiffs say the Rhino is dangerously unstable due to its unusually narrow stance, high ground clearance and lack of a rear differential to help in turning. They also claim the Rhino’s seat belts tend to unspool during rollovers, resulting in belted occupants being partially ejected.
Under pressure from the agency, Yamaha on March 31 announced a “free repair program” to improve the Rhino’s handling and stability-seemingly a recall in everything but name. The company agreed to install spacers on the rear axles of the vehicles to make them a few inches wider, to remove their rear anti-sway bars, and install protective half-doors on Rhinos that don’t already have them.
Owners who watch a safety video when they bring in their Rhinos will also get a $100 coupon toward purchase of a helmet. Yamaha stressed that the action was not a recall, but a “voluntary repair program.”
Yamaha says it has cooperated fully with the safety commission. The company maintains there is nothing wrong with the Rhino, and that rollovers don’t occur when drivers follow instructions on warning labels and in the owner’s manual.
The Rhino is “a safe, reliable and versatile vehicle,” and “virtually every Rhino-related incident involves at least one warned against behavior (such as failure to wear a seatbelt and/or helmet, underage driver, excessive speed, alcohol/drugs or inattention to terrain/collision),” according to a statement issued by Yamaha Motor Corp. USA.
The Rhino is not an ATV, but a “side-by-side”– a category of off-road vehicle that is gaining popularity and is not subject to any government standards. Unlike ATVs, which riders straddle like a motorcycle, side-by-sides are more jeep-like, with seating for two, a steering wheel instead of handlebars, a rear cargo bed — and safety features such as seat belts and a roll cage.
The Rhino has a narrower track and higher ground clearance than most all other popular side-by-sides-enabling it to crawl over rocks and through tight spaces. But just as a stool tips more easily than an easy chair, experts say a narrower, taller vehicle is more apt to roll over in turning maneuvers or uneven terrain. Engineers for plaintiffs’ lawyers say the Rhino has a low stability factor, a rough arithmetical measure of rollover risk based on a vehicle’s track width and the height of its center of gravity.
Yamaha has touted the Rhino’s off-road prowess with a made-up word -“terrainability.” “Don’t Just Tackle Tough Terrain,” said a Rhino ad. “Make It Say Uncle.”
Yet serious accidents have allegedly occurred under seemingly benign conditions-at low to moderate speeds, on relatively flat ground, and without drivers knowingly doing anything adventurous or sporty. Rollovers have even occurred at dealerships when employees were moving Rhinos around the lot, or taking customers on test drives, court records show. Like Ike Miyachi, the president of Yamaha France suffered a leg injury when his Rhino tipped in 2005.
There have clearly been accidents in which riders failed to follow safety instructions. The CPSC identified cases where people failed to wear seatbelts or helmets.
But Jason Shamblin, a Birmingham, Alabama, lawyer representing dozens of Rhino plaintiffs, said he has “not filed any cases where my client has been operating or has been a passenger on a Rhino that has been driven as aggressively as I have seen on some Rhino TV ads.”
The product safety commission lent some support to such claims. In announcing the repair program in March, the agency said “Of the rollover-related deaths and hundreds of reported injuries, some of which were serious, many appear to involve turns at relatively low speeds and on level terrain.”
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