Yamaha Motor Co., the world’s second-largest motorcycle maker, is not liable for damages to the family of a Texas teenager who died while driving the company’s Rhino all-terrain vehicle.
Jurors in state court in Orange, Texas, deliberated about two hours before ruling the vehicle wasn’t to blame for the death of 13-year-old Forest “Eddie” Ray in 2007. The Rhino, a cross between a golf cart and an ATV, has been linked to 59 deaths in the U.S. The case is the first of about 500 to go to trial.
“The jury made a decision based on the facts,” according to Van Holmes, a spokesman for Yamaha’s U.S. division. “The testimony and evidence during the trial showed that this tragic accident had nothing to do with the design of the product.”
Yamaha, based in Iwata, Japan, faces about 500 lawsuits in the U.S. on claims that design defects and a lack of safety features cause the Rhino to roll at low speeds. In April, the company stopped selling the vehicle and offered free repairs on 145,000 units.
Ray died in September 2007 after the Rhino he was riding rolled over in a turn from a field onto a paved road. His speed at the time was 14 to 17 miles (23 to 27 kilometers) per hour, according to the attorney for Ray’s family.
More than two-thirds of Rhino accidents investigated in the U.S. involved rollovers, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. In many of the accidents, drivers were maneuvering at relatively low speeds on level terrain, the agency said. In some cases, injuries required the amputation of arms, legs and fingers, it said.
Yamaha’s attorneys argued that the vehicle underwent vigorous testing before its debut in 2003. It is equipped with safety devices including a three-point seat belt that cinches, hip guards and hand holds, Hawkins said during the trial. Yamaha blamed Ray’s death on operator error.
Johnny Ray testified that his son had years of experience on dirt bikes and ATVs before the fatal accident. The 13-year- old was riding the Rhino without a helmet, the older Ray said.
“If I’d thought it was dangerous, I’d have put a helmet on him,” Ray told jurors at the start of the trial. “I figured it was like a golf cart, the same thing I drove as a kid. Buckle up and it will keep you safe in there. I didn’t think I would be putting my son in danger.”
Mike Burleson, an engineering expert with System Engineering & Laboratories, testified that the Rhino had problems with lateral stability because of its width, high center of gravity, stiff suspension and acceleration. The Rhino rolled over at speeds as low as 11.5 mph in tests, he testified for the plaintiffs.
The Rhino’s safety recommendations warn against drivers under the age of 16 operating the machine. A warning label also cautions that the vehicle is for off-road use only and must be operated with seatbelts and protective gear, lawyers for Yamaha said during the trial.
The case is Ray v. Yamaha Motor Corp. USA, B070626-C, 163rd Judicial District, Orange County, Texas (Orange).
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