Feds Probe Yamaha Off Roader After 30 Deaths

The Yamaha Rhino, a hit in the off-road-vehicle market, promises to go "almost anywhere" with an "amazingly high level of comfort and ease." Now, federal safety regulators are investigating the vehicle following reports of some 30 deaths involving it, including those of two young girls last month.

The Rhino also has drawn keen interest from the plaintiffs' bar: Yamaha faces more than 200 lawsuits in state and federal courts, many alleging the Rhino's design is unsafe. Yamaha has settled some but recently beefed up its defense and says it may start to fight rather than settle.

Yamaha stands behind the design of the Rhino, a two-seat vehicle that looks a little like a cross between a golf cart and all-terrain vehicle. The Consumer Product Safety Commission said its investigation of this type of vehicle, which it calls a utility terrain vehicle, or UTV, was prompted by various factors, including the number of accident reports and the lawsuits. The Rhino is at the center of its investigation, people familiar with it said.

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Yamaha said plaintiffs' lawyers "have seized on safety and product enhancements that Yamaha has made to the Rhino to allege baseless claims about the stability of the vehicles."

Many injury claims, the company said, stem from improper operation, modifications such as removing the protective "roll cage," or failure to use a helmet and seat belt. "If you operate it carefully and use some common sense and good judgment, it's a really great product," said Roy Watson, general manager of legal for Yamaha Motor Corp. USA, a unit of Japan's Yamaha Motor Co. Ltd.

The Rhino matter shows how federal safety regulators sometimes struggle to respond to what they call "emerging hazard" areas. There are no regulatory standards for the new breed of off-road vehicles, the CPSC said.

Click here for more on this story from The Wall Street Journal.