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Rhino UTV Litigation — The State of Things to Come


The Yamaha Rhino UTV litigation continues to progress in federal and state courts. Currently, there are nearly 300 individual lawsuits pending in the federal MDL court in Kentucky as well as approximately 130 cases filed in consolidated state court proceedings in Georgia and 174 cases in California.

All of the cases pending in the federal court system were transferred to Judge Jennifer B. Coffman in February 2009, after the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation determined that central coordination of the cases would be in the best interest of the court system as well as the parties.

This multi-district litigation (or MDL) process is a common method for dealing with a large number of individual lawsuits pertaining to the same defective product or disaster. Prior to establishment of this MDL (No. 2016), there were 55 individual lawsuits pending before 33 different federal court judges around the country. This diversity of geography and judicial resources proved to be causing significant administrative inefficiencies and permitted the manufacturers multiple opportunities to delay cases and avoid disclosure of critical evidence.

Judge Coffman in Kentucky continues to preside over the federal MDL cases. The first trial in federal court was initially scheduled for October of 2010, but that date has now been postponed to January of 2011. The other 8 federal trials should occur in 2011, after completion of the first trial.

The first trial is part of the MDL “bellwether trial process,” which will allow the judge and the parties to refine a number of generic issues relating to the sufficiency of expert testimony, admissibility of evidence, and resolution of a number of generic legal issues, which will have an impact on all the pending cases. The first cases scheduled for trial were selected from those filed long before 2009. Discovery efforts, including production of documents and the completion of depositions of fact and expert witnesses, continue as well.

So far, several Yamaha Rhino cases have gone to trial, with mixed results:

Yamaha and its retailers are defending the cases by arguing that the vehicles have been misused by drivers and passengers who failed to exercise common sense and also ignored warnings that were issued by the manufacturer regarding safe use of the vehicles. These defense arguments were apparently persuasive with some juries.

Prior to establishment of the coordinated proceedings and the filing of large numbers of cases, Yamaha had settled a handful of cases prior to trial for confidential sums. Given the verdicts so far, there is little likelihood that Yamaha will consider settlement of claims until such time as further trials are completed and the discovery process is progresses.

As we have expressed in prior articles, the Rhino UTV has demonstrated itself to be (and engineers have evaluated it as) one of the most poorly designed vehicles of its kind. There are numerous accounts of rollovers occurring at very low speeds and on relatively level ground. Additional discovery and future trials should help to level scales for the plaintiffs in this litigation.

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