At first glance, Swainston v. Yamaha Motor Corp. seemed a run-of-the-mill products liability case. A California man nearly lost his leg in 2006 following an accident in an all-terrain vehicle driven by his 14-year-old son. Daniel Swainston sued manufacturer Yamaha, alleging design flaws in the vehicle — a side-by-side model called the Rhino — were to blame for the rollover and his injuries.

Although Swainston sought damages, much more was riding on the outcome when the case went to trial in February 2011; it was a bellwether for some 1,000 Rhino-related claims.

“There were about 100 plaintiffs’ firms that had cases, and they were looking for a case that would bust open the bank,” said Rick McKnight, a partner in Jones Day’s Los Angeles office and lead defense attorney for Yamaha. “Sometimes I think about this case and say, ‘It was just a broken leg.’ But it had so much significance beyond that.”

Daniel Swainston appeared something of an ideal plaintiff. His son was perfectly sober at the time of the accident, and although not old enough to legally drive a car, he had experience operating dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles. The day of the accident, on a dirt road in a national park in central California, was his first time behind the wheel of a Rhino, however.

The defense team, comprising McKnight and colleagues Sharyl Reisman and John Goetz, took the position that the Swainstons misused the Rhino and failed to follow Yamaha’s cautions. But they exercised caution. “Our view was that we were not going to blame the teenage boy, even though he was the one who operated the vehicle recklessly,” McKnight said. “We believed that the responsibility belongs to the father to guide and train the son and monitor his behavior.”

The parties presented very different scenarios of the accident during the three-month trial. Both the father and son testified that their Rhino rolled over in the course of making a U-turn in the road, and that both were wearing their seat belts. The defense countered that the accident resulted from jackrabbit accelerations and extreme steering.

RHINO IN THE COURTROOM

The defense relied heavily on technical testimony from expert witnesses as well as videos of the Rhino in use, to demonstrate that the vehicle would not have rolled over in the circumstances described by the plaintiffs. The team brought the Rhino involved in the accident into the courtroom for the duration of the trial — which required the removal of the room’s doors and some of the benches. The machine represented “some of the best testimony there is,” McKnight said. “You can see the scratches and marks on the vehicle, which gives you an insight into how the accident occurred.”

The defense presented evidence that Swainston had not, in fact, been wearing a seat belt; McKnight argued that it was highly unlikely he would have sustained the injuries he did had he worn it.

The seat belt was a major focus, particularly because Yamaha made two design modifications to the Rhino following the Swainstons’ accident to address safety concerns — adding doors, which the plaintiffs’ attorneys argued would have prevented Swainston’s injuries, and widening the Rhino’s track width. Yamaha agreed to that modification at the behest of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, but disputed that it would improve the Rhino’s stability.

“The plaintiffs wanted to focus on the absence of a door, and we wanted to focus on the importance of using the vehicle properly,” McKnight said.

The defense was thrown a major curveball about three weeks into the trial, when the plaintiffs’ counsel elicited testimony that 46 deaths had been associated with the Rhino. The judge had excluded that information. The team and Yamaha’s in-house attorneys agonized over how to respond, McKnight said. They were reluctant to move for a mistrial — proceedings were going well and they had developed a rapport with the jury, which included three engineers.

In the end, the defense opted to push on, and the judge rebuked the plaintiffs’ team. Lead plaintiffs’ attorney Gary Praglin of Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack in Los Angeles did not respond to requests for comment.

On April 4, after several days of deliberations, the jury decided the case on behalf of Yamaha.

“Rick worked diligently through a lengthy pretrial process and implemented a strong affirmative defense that resulted in the jury rejecting the plaintiffs’ claims and finding that the Rhino is a safe and defect-free vehicle,” said Brian Gabel, legal counsel at Yamaha.

Yamaha’s victory has already had major repercussions for the other Rhino cases. “Plaintiffs’ lawyers who are good businesspeople want to invest their time and resources where they can win and get a big payoff,” McKnight said. “I think this case reminded them that they can’t win and they aren’t going to get a big payoff. These cases are streaming into dismissals and low settlements.”

Karen Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@alm.com.