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After a six week trial in the Orange County Superior Court Civil Complex Division, the jury returned a 12–0 unanimous defense verdict in favor of Yamaha in a case involving the Yamaha Rhino off-road vehicle. Elizabeth Ault-Smietana v. Yamaha Motor Corporation U.S.A., Yamaha Motor Manufacturing Corporation of America, Yamaha Motor Company, Ltd., Defendants, Superior Court of California, for the County of Orange – Civil Complex Center, Case No. 37-2011-00086006-CU-PO-CTL, Judicial Council Coordination Proceeding No. 4561, Judge Kim G. Dunning presiding. A copy of the jury's verdict is attached.
Elizabeth Ault-Smietana, age 41, sustained a comminuted open fracture of her distal tibia and fibula in a March 30, 2010, tipover crash of a customized 2007 model year Rhino 660 SE in which she was riding as a passenger in Glamis, California. Her husband, Jayson Smietana, claimed he was attempting a left turn at 15 miles-per-hour or less when the vehicle tipped toward the passenger side. Other witness testimony indicated that the plaintiff's husband was traveling between 15 to 25 mph when he turned sharply and clipped the base of a small sand dune with his inside tires.
Plaintiff alleged defects in the Rhino's stability, occupant crash protection and warnings. Yamaha contended that the vehicle was heavily modified at the time of the crash and that the original design of the Rhino vehicle was safe and defect free. Yamaha also maintained that the driver caused the crash by driving aggressively and that the plaintiff caused her lower leg injury by failing to properly wear a seat belt and appropriate riding gear.
Plaintiff relied on evidence that, after the sale of the subject vehicle, Yamaha offered free sculpted half doors and CPSC-requested axle spacers to owners of previously-purchased Rhinos. Those modifications, as well as the application of an updated safety label, had not been made on the subject vehicle.
Plaintiff's lower right leg was amputated after years of serious infections and multiple prior surgeries. Plaintiff's counsel asked the jury to award $16,780,000 in special and general compensatory damages. Yamaha asked the jury to return a complete defense verdict, which was the jury's finding.
Plaintiff also sought punitive damages in an unspecified amount; however, the Court dismissed the punitive damage claim as a matter of law at the close of plaintiff's evidence.
Following the verdict, Yamaha's lead trial counsel, Paul G. Cereghini of Bowman and Brooke LLP, commented:
“Yamaha has been tremendously successful in defending the Rhino. This verdict reinforces the message sent in prior trials that Yamaha designed, manufactured and sold a safe and defect free vehicle. Yamaha has once again demonstrated that it can and will vigorously and successfully defend cases like this.”
This trial involved the last active matter in the California JCCP Rhino litigation that at one time had more than 275 matters. In Re Coordinated Yamaha Rhino Litigation, Judicial Council Coordination Proceeding No. 4561. Again represented by Mr. Cereghini, Yamaha successfully tried the first JCCP bellwether case to a defense verdict on July 26, 2010. 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 P. Colaw presiding.
Plaintiff Elizabeth Ault-Smietana's experts were William Kitzes, JD of Consumer Safety Associates, Boca Raton, Florida; Michael Burleson, PE, CSP of System Engineering and Laboratories, Tyler, Texas; Timothy Lanning of Formuzis, Pickersgill & Hunt, Inc., Santa Ana, California; Kendall Wagner, MD of Fullerton Orthopaedic, Fullerton, California; and, Keith Vinnecour, CPO of Beverly Hills Prosthetics Orthotics, Inc., West Hills, California.
Yamaha's experts were Michael Carhart, Ph.D. of Exponent, Phoenix, Arizona; Alan Dorris, Ph.D of Dorris and Associates International, LLC, Atlanta, Georgia; Kevin Breen, PE of ESI, Fort Meyers, Florida; and, Tye Ouzounian, MD of Tarzana, California.
Plaintiff was represented at trial by Fredric G. Levin and Virginia Buchanan of Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty & Proctor, P.A. in Pensacola, Florida; Ryan Bright of Klein DeNatale, Goldner in Bakersfield, California; and, Ian Pancer of the Law Offices of Ian Pancer in San Diego, California.
Yamaha was represented by its lead counsel Paul G. Cereghini of Bowman and Brooke LLP in Phoenix, Arizona, and by Timothy J. Mattson and Jenny A. Covington of Bowman and Brooke LLP in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Travis Wheeler of Bowman and Brooke LLP in Phoenix, Arizona; and, Brian Gabel of the Yamaha Motor Corporation, U.S.A. Legal Department.
Paul G. Cereghini is Bowman and Brooke’s Chair and an executive managing partner. He can be reached at 602-643-2400 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read a Law360 report on this verdict.