Couple sue after accident on all-terrain vehicle

January 30, 1994|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff Writer

A Columbia woman and her husband go to court tomorrow in a civil lawsuit they filed against the maker of an all-terrain vehicle that they claim flipped and crushed the woman while she was riding the ATV.

Marcia and Warren Turner contend in the lawsuit that the ATV was unsafe and its manufacturer is to blame for injuries Mrs. Turner received in a July 1986 accident.

"This ATV is a dynamically unstable and unpredictable vehicle requiring quick perception, decision and reaction times," the Turners say in court papers.

The Turners are seeking $9 million in damages from Yamaha Motor Corp. USA of Cypress, Calif., and Maryland Yamaha Inc., the Brooklyn Park dealership where they bought the vehicle.

Yamaha denies liability, asserting that the company had no control over the accident that caused Mrs. Turner's injuries. The company says the Turners must assume the risk of injuries when operating such vehicles.

The jury trial in Howard Circuit Court is expected to last about 10 days before Judge Dennis M. Sweeney.

Twenty-three people, including engineers and other specialists on ATV safety, are listed in court papers as potential witnesses for the Turners and Yamaha at the trial.

Meridith Bond, a Knoxville, Tenn., attorney for the Turners, declined to comment on the case.

The Turners, of the 10600 block of Vista Road, have been advised not to discuss the suit.

Jane Hylinski and Walter Smith Jr., Washington attorneys for Yamaha, also declined to comment.

The Turner case is one of many civil lawsuits filed nationwide in the past decade challenging the safety of ATVs, small four-wheel vehicles popular for off-road driving. Many of the cases that went to trial resulted in verdicts in favor of the ATV manufacturers.

But last fall, a jury in Blunt County, Ala., awarded the family of a 9-year-old boy killed in an ATV accident about $2.5 million in damages against Yamaha. The boy was operating the ATV when it rolled over and crushed him four years ago.

The Turner accident came two years before a decree between ATV manufacturers and the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission that blocked sales of three-wheel ATVs and required any four-wheelers sold to carry warning labels. In the decree, the companies did not admit any product defects or wrongdoing.

Mrs. Turner, now 45, was operating a four-wheel Yamaha ATV on July 6, 1986, about five months after the vehicle was purchased, at a farm she and her husband own with another couple in Victoria, Va., court papers say.

Mrs. Turner had driven the ATV about a half-dozen times, including the day before the accident, without any mishaps, papers say. She was not wearing a helmet.

She was traveling over a hill when the ATV unexpectedly flipped backward and landed on her.

Mrs. Turner suffered numerous injuries, including severe injuries to her back, records say. She had to have two metal rods implanted into her back to support her spine.

In the suit, the Turners contend the accident was caused by the ATV's "propensity" to overturn, brought on by the vehicle's poor design, suspension system and the high traction generated by its tires.

"These factors . . . combined to produce a machine that will

suddenly go into a rearward flip in a dynamic reaction that occurs faster than the operator's actions," the plaintiffs say.

Yamaha and its dealership failed to disclose that ATVs are unsafe when the Turners were shopping for the vehicle, the suit says. The salesman told the Turners that the vehicle would not tip over.

The ATV's design, along with its advertising and promotional materials, provide an "illusion of stability and safety" that mislead consumers, the Turners say.

In reality, according to the Turners' allegations, the ATV is only as safe as its operator, because it is designed to be dependent on the rider's ability. Yet Yamaha does not recommend any formal training to operate such vehicles, the suit says.

But Yamaha argues in court filings that Mrs. Turner made no effort to protect herself from the injuries, noting that she failed to follow instructions in the vehicle's manual.

"The proximate cause of the accident was not due to a latent defect or a condition not immediately observable to the operator, but to the failure of the plaintiff to operate the vehicle in a reasonable and prudent manner," the company says.

The company noted that Mrs. Turner's husband and daughter drove the ATV on the same hill without any problems before the accident.

Yamaha also noted in its filings that manufacturers have no duty to sell accident-proof products.

The Turners filed the lawsuit in July 1989, but Judge James Dudley granted a request by Yamaha's attorneys that in effect dismissed the suit. Judge Dudley ruled the Turners filed the suit beyond Virginia's two-year statute of limitations for civil cases.

The couple then appealed the ruling to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which sent the case back to Howard County for a trial.

The appellate court noted that the case must follow laws in Maryland, which has a three-year statute of limitations, because the Turners bought the ATV in Maryland.

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