Case details

Plaintiffs caused stability issues by modifying UTV: defense





Result type

Not present

ankle, distal fibula, fracture, leg, lower leg, right
On March 30, 2010, plaintiff Elizabeth Ault-Smietana, then 37, an airline customer service agent, was a passenger in a customized 2007 Yamaha Rhino 660 SE, a utility task vehicle, operated by her husband in Glamis. While Ault-Smietana’s husband was attempting a left turn, the vehicle tipped toward the passenger side, causing Ault-Smietana to stick her right leg outside the vehicle. As a result, she sustained to her right, lower leg. Ault-Smietana sued Yamaha Motor Corporation U.S.A.; Yamaha Motor Manufacturing Corporation of America; and Yamaha Motor Company, Ltd. Ault-Smietana alleged that the defendants defectively designed the UTV and failed to provide proper warnings. Ault-Smietana’s husband claimed he was attempting a left turn at 15 mph or less when the vehicle tipped toward the passenger side. Plaintiff’s counsel contended that the Rhino 660 SE was defective in design with respect to lateral stability. Counsel also contended that the Rhino lacked adequate occupant protection, and lacked adequate warnings and instructions. Plaintiff’s counsel relied on the fact that Yamaha, in the years following the manufacture of the subject vehicle, made a free offer to install sculpted half-doors, and instituted a voluntary repair program to install wheel spacers and remove the rear anti-sway bar on previously purchased Rhinos. However, the owners of the subject Rhino had not participated in these programs. Defense counsel maintained that the design of the Rhino is safe and defect free, even without the installation of sculpted half-doors or the voluntary repair program modifications. Counsel contended that the subject vehicle was heavily modified at the time of the crash, such that the stability of the vehicle and the numerous occupant protection features were altered or removed. Counsel also contended that Ault-Smietana’s husband was driving aggressively and caused the crash by clipping the base of a small sand dune while turning sharply at 15 to 25 mph. In addition, defense counsel contended that Ault-Smietana caused her by failing to properly wear a seat belt or appropriate riding gear, and by failing to follow medical advice after the crash. The trial was the last active matter in the California JCCP Rhino litigation — In Re Coordinated Yamaha Rhino Litigation, Judicial Council Coordination Proceeding No. 4561 — which at one time had more than 275 matters. In the Ault-Smietana matter, the court dismissed the failure to warn claimed and ruled that only the design defect claim could go to the jury. However, it ordered that no complaints of prior incidents could be mentioned at trial since the other alleged complaints were not made under oath., Ault-Smietana fractured her right, lower leg. She initially presented to Pioneers Memorial Hospital, in Brawley, but left against medical advice before undergoing surgery. She then returned to her home in the Las Vegas, where she obtained further treatment. She ultimately underwent a total of nine surgeries over the course of three years before undergoing a below-the-knee amputation at UCLA, following a long-term infection. Plaintiff’s counsel asked the jury to award $16,780,000 in special and general compensatory damages. Ault-Smietana had also sought recovery of an unspecified amount of punitive damages, but the court dismissed the punitive damages claim, as well as the failure to warn claim, as a matter of law at the close of the plaintiff’s evidence. Defense counsel asked the jury to return a complete defense verdict.
Superior Court of Orange County, Santa Ana, CA

Recommended Experts


Get a FREE consultation for your case