After a four month trial in the Orange County Superior Court Civil Complex Division, the jury returned a 12 – 0 unanimous defense verdict in the first of 174 California consolidated cases involving the Yamaha Rhino off-road vehicle. Richard B. Holt, Plaintiff vs. Yamaha Motor Corporation, U.S.A., Yamaha Motor Manufacturing Corporation of America, Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd. Superior Court of California, for the County of Orange – Civil Complex Center, Case No. 06CC11291, Judge Thierry Colaw presiding.
Plaintiff Richard Holt alleged that defects in his 2005 Rhino 660 vehicle caused his April 1, 2006 crash in which he tipped his vehicle onto its side resulting in an open compound fracture of his left tibia and fibula. Plaintiff claimed that the Rhino lacked adequate stability, doors for lower extremity protection and sufficient warnings.
Yamaha defended its design and warnings, contending that Mr. Holt caused his crash and injury by aggressive and impaired driving and by failing to wear a seat belt. Plaintiff denied aggressive driving and impairment and claimed he was wearing his seat belt.
Plaintiff’s evidence focused on Yamaha’s post-sale actions including a September 2006 supplemental labeling campaign, voluntary side panel door offer in August 2007 and a March 2009 CPSC voluntary repair program that included increasing the rear track width of the vehicle.
Yamaha defended the Rhino as a safe and defect free vehicle sold with appropriate warnings and instructions that, if followed, would have prevented plaintiff’s incident. Plaintiff sought over $1 million in compensatory damages and an unspecified amount of punitive damages.
This first "bellwether" trial was closely watched by lawyers with other cases involving the Yamaha Rhino. Approximately 174 California Rhino matters are consolidated in the Orange County Superior Court, with another 271 cases consolidated in a federal MDL in the Western District of Kentucky, and 130 cases pending in a consolidated action in Gwinnett County, Georgia.
Yamaha’s lead counsel, Paul Cereghini, of the national product liability defense firm, Bowman and Brooke LLP commented on the verdict:
"In returning this unanimous verdict, the jury rejected every one of plaintiff’s claims. This verdict sends a clear message that the Yamaha Rhino is a safe, well-designed and defect free off-road vehicle."
Plaintiff’s case went to verdict on claims for strict product liability, negligent product design, strict liability failure to warn, negligent failure to warn, failure to recall and punitive damages. The jury’s general verdict for Yamaha rejects all of these causes of action.
Plaintiff’s witnesses included design engineer Mr. James Williams from Fenton, Michigan; handling and stability engineer Micky Gilbert from Wheat Ridge, Colorado; seat belt biomechanic, Mr. Louis D’Aulerio from Penns Park, Pennsylvania; former NHTSA employee and biomechanic Dr. Michael Kleinberger from Clarksville, Maryland; former CPSC employee Mr. William Kitzes of Boca Raton, Florida, accident reconstructionist Mr. Ronald Carr of San Diego, California; impairment psychologist Dr. Dary Fiorentino from Van Nuys, California; economist Ms. Stephanie Rizzardi from Pasadena, California; and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Jonathan Nissanoff from Poway, California.
Yamaha’s witnesses included engineer Mr. Kevin Breen from Fort Myers, Florida; human factors engineer Dr. Alan Dorris from Atlanta, Georgia; engineer Robert Larson from Phoenix, Arizona; seat belt engineer Mr. Eddie Cooper from Phoenix, Arizona; biomechanic Dr. Harry Smith from San Antonio, Texas; biomechanic Dr. Robert Piziali from San Carlos, California; accident reconstructionist Dr. Graeme Fowler from Phoenix, Arizona; forensic toxicologist Mr. Martin Breen from Tustin, California and vehicle design engineer Lee Carr from Houston, Texas.
Plaintiff was represented by Scott Nealey of Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein, LLP in San Francisco and Anthony J. Klein of Klein, DeNatale, Goldner, Cooper, Rosenlieb & Kimball, LLP in Bakersfield, California. Mr. Nealey and Mr. Klein represent plaintiffs in hundreds of Rhino matters and their firms have leadership positions in the California consolidation and the federal MDL actions. At times Mr. Nealey and Mr. Klein were assisted at trial by Gary Logan of Klein, DeNatale, Goldner, Cooper, Rosenlieb & Kimball, LLP in Bakersfield.
Yamaha was represented by its lead counsel Paul Cereghini of Bowman and Brooke in Phoenix, Arizona and by Thomas Branigan of Bowman and Brooke in Detroit. Mr. Cereghini and Mr. Branigan have leadership roles in the California consolidation and the federal MDL actions. Mr. Cereghini and Mr. Branigan were assisted at trial by Jeffrey Warren of Bowman and Brooke in Phoenix, Arizona and by Mr. Brian Gabel of the Yamaha Motor Corporation, U.S.A. Legal Department.