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Drawn by All-Terrain Vehicle Suits : Honda Chief's Testimony Lures Bevy of Lawyers

October 14, 1987|JENIFER WARREN | Times Staff Writer

In a landmark courtroom appearance being monitored by personal injury attorneys nationwide, the senior managing director of the Honda Motor Co. took the witness stand on Tuesday to answer allegations about defects in the company's popular but controversial three-wheel all-terrain vehicles.

Testifying in a San Diego Superior Court case involving a boy seriously injured in 1982 while riding one of Honda's off-road tricycles, Tetsuo Chino defended both the company's products and its record of responding to deficiencies when they are brought to the attention of corporate officials.

Chino, who is also chairman of the board and former president of Gardena-based American Honda Motor Co., Inc., said he was unaware until 1984 of an increase in the number of injuries and deaths associated with use of the company's all-terrain vehicles.

Once he learned of the problems and the fact that legal claims filed by injured riders were also on the rise, Chino said he became "concerned" and directed his staff to look into the complaints. A subsequent investigation into the alleged instability of the three-wheel vehicles, Chino said, produced a report from Honda's research and development division that concluded, "There is no problem with the machine. The problem is with the rider."

Proposed Recall

Chino's court appearance in San Diego has attracted nationwide interest among attorneys who handle cases involving injuries or deaths associated with the use of the so-called ATVs, which require no license or training to operate and may be driven by riders of any age. The case also has caught the eye of the U.S. Justice Department, which is investigating the ATV safety issue in connection with a proposed recall of the machines.

On Tuesday, lawyers from numerous firms packed the courtroom for Chino's testimony, taking copious notes as the diminutive, bespectacled executive in a dark gray suit answered questions, frequently with the help of a Japanese translator.

Steven Archer, a Los Angeles attorney who has handled about six such cases and is closely watching the San Diego proceeding, said Chino's appearance is key because it is "the first time these questions about defects and so forth have been asked that far up the corporate ladder."

"One of the issues present in all of these cases is when Honda had actual notice of potential repetitive accident events, meaning when they knew these machines tip very easily and what they did about it," Archer said.

"In all the cases I am acquainted with, Honda has taken the position that they had no knowledge of any dangerous propensities or defects in their machines . . . Now we get to see the top guy--a guy who is accountable or whose office is accountable--take the stand and explain to the jury why they don't know about this stuff and why they haven't done something about it."

In previous cases, engineers or members of Honda's research and development division have typically answered for the company, according to Archer and other attorneys affiliated with the ATV Litigation Group, an informal association of lawyers nationwide who handle cases involving the vehicles. Chino's testimony appears to mark the first time a high-ranking corporate executive has taken the stand in cases centering on the alleged safety deficiencies of the off-road cycles, lawyers familiar with past litigation say.

Went to High Court

According to court records, Honda bitterly fought efforts by attorneys in the case to obtain Chino's testimony. The company ultimately took the matter all the way to the state Supreme Court, but lost the fight there earlier this year.

"This is very, very unusual," said Sidney Gilreath, a Knoxville, Tenn., attorney who frequently handles cases for victims in ATV accidents. "They usually insulate the CEO and it's been very tough to get Honda to produce anyone at the top . . . We are all watching this very carefully because it could have great significance for future litigation."

Controversy has dogged ATVs since their debut on the market in 1970 and has reached an all-time peak in recent years. Priced between $600 and $2,000, the vehicles--also manufactured by Suzuki and Yamaha--have become a widespread pastime, with more than 2.5 million sold in the United States alone.

Critics complain, however, that the vehicles are all but unregulated and are difficult for children to operate safely.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, ATVs have been linked to an average of 20 deaths and 7,000 injuries each month nationwide in the last two years. As of June, 1987, the total death count associated with the vehicles was 789. About half of the victims injured or killed are under 16.

500 Lawsuits Filed

The American Academy of Pediatrics has lobbied for banning their manufacture. A total of 500 lawsuits have been filed concerning injuries or deaths resulting from the ATVs' use.

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