The Yamaha Motor Corporation has caught a lot of flack recently over the lack of doors on its two-seater Rhino all-terrain vehicle. After it made some safety modifications to the Rhino in 2007, Yamaha was hit with a number of lawsuits - 175 in California alone. The national media caught wind of the lawsuits and came down pretty harsh. In response, Yamaha created its own website, TruthAboutRhino.com, and a Rally Around Rhino widget to garner support for the ATV. We don’t the know effectiveness of Yamaha’s use of the Interwebs, but something must have worked. Yamaha prevailed in all but one of the lawsuits. As to the one that got away? Well, that one was recently reversed by an appellate court.
Earlier this month, in Yamaha Motor Corp. U.S.A. v. McTaggart, No. A11A1022 (Ga. Ct. App. Nov. 15, 2011), the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case to the trial court with direction to enter judgment granting Yamaha’s motion for a directed verdict. In 2008, the plaintiff filed suit against Yamaha after he flipped his Rhino and suffered a severe laceration to his leg. The complaint alleged that his injuries were caused by a latent stability defect and the absence of doors. (The stability defect claims were abandoned four weeks before trial). Following a trial, the jury found that the Rhino’s defective design proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries and returned a verdict in his favor for $317,002.
On appeal, Yamaha argued that the undisputed evidence at trial demanded a finding that the plaintiff assumed the risk of his injuries. At trial, the plaintiff testified that the Rhino was useful to him “because it had no door.” When he purchased the ATV, he declined the dealership’s offer to install an after-market door because he preferred the open access. Further, the plaintiff admitted that he had seen and understood the significance of keeping his legs inside the Rhino during a rollover. When the salesman reviewed the warning stickers on the Rhino, the plaintiff admittedly laughed and said, “Well, man, common sense would tell you not to do that, right?” Looking at the evidence as a whole, the Court found that the plaintiff had significant experience operating the Rhino and was clearly aware of the potential danger of injury to his limbs.
Yamaha may champion this decision on its Rhino website, but it should be noted that this decision tells us little, if anything, about the alleged defective design of the Rhino. That issue was not on appeal. We can see how some may view doors as a necessary component of a vehicle. But let’s get real. We aren’t talking about driving a DeLorean down the freeway. We are talking about a Rhino – an all-terrain vehicle. Ever heard of Jeep? No doors necessary.
Regardless of the potential design defect, the Court of Appeals got this one right. Buying a product specifically because it doesn’t have doors, then suing for the same reason seems illogical. The plaintiff admittedly was fully aware of the risks – always a good sign when trying to formulate an assumption of risk defense.