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All-Terrain Cycle Injury Suit Loses : Jury Says Honda Not Responsible for Boy’s Accident on Three-Wheeler

Times Staff Writer

Capping a trial monitored by attorneys and consumer groups nationwide, a San Diego Superior Court jury on Tuesday concluded that the Honda Motor Co. was not responsible for an accident in which a young boy suffered brain damage and other injuries after falling from one of the company’s three-wheel all-terrain vehicles.

The jurors’ 10-2 verdict, reached after 2 1/2 days of deliberations, means that 15-year-old Frank Cusimano Jr. will receive no compensation for injuries he suffered when he tumbled from the back of a Honda 110 ATC in 1982.

During the six-month-long trial, Cusimano’s attorneys alleged that the popular but controversial cycles were inherently unstable and defective because of their three-wheel configuration, balloon tires and lack of a key to control their use.

But in interviews after their verdict was announced by Judge Ben Hamrick, two jurors said they believe the evidence proved otherwise.

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‘A Tough One’

“It was a tough one, because we all felt terrible about the poor kid’s injuries,” said juror Warren Carey, a computer systems technician. “But it was clear that Honda had fulfilled its responsibility to warn the rider of the risks of the ATC. The company did its part to let people know about the potential dangers, through warning labels and so forth.”

Juror Don Caro agreed and said Cusimano’s parents bear some blame for failing to take precautions to protect their son, who was a passenger riding with an 8-year-old neighbor boy when the accident occurred.

“Everyone has to take responsibility for their own actions, and parents also must supervise their youngsters, help them learn how to ride,” Caro said. “Mr. Cusimano did not have a history of that. He did not get involved. That doesn’t mean he’s a bad parent, but he does bear some responsibility for this.”

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Tuesday’s verdict comes just weeks after Honda and three other companies that manufacture the vehicles agreed to stop the sale of the cycles, buy back all ATVs in dealer inventories, place warning labels on vehicles and launch a nationwide safety-training campaign. The companies also agreed to raise the minimum operating age for most vehicles to 16 and mail letters to ATV owners alerting them of safety risks.

7,000 Injuries a Month

The agreement was negotiated in the wake of statistics showing that ATVs have caused 20 deaths and 7,000 injuries a month for the past two years. About half of the victims of the estimated 880 deaths and 300,000 injuries since 1982 have been under 16.

Despite the sales ban, Honda’s attorney in the San Diego case, Richard Bowman, said that the industry “will by no means stop defending the integrity of our products. We at Honda feel very strongly about the integrity of this (three-wheel) product and this jury certainly does too.”

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Bowman, a Minneapolis attorney whose firm exclusively handles product liability cases for several automobile manufacturers, praised the jury, noting, “It takes a lot of guts to say no (to a claim for damages) when you have a tragic injury like this one. And this jury not only said ‘no,’ they said ‘Hell no.’ ”

Bowman said he believes jurors were most effectively persuaded by the engineer who designed the Honda 110 ATC, Osamu Takeuchi, who testified through a Japanese translator for five days--half of which he spent astride one of several off-road cycles parked in the courtroom.

“I think they saw how fiercely proud he was of this ATC and realized that this was a company that takes responsibility for its products,” Bowman said.

‘Shocked’ by Verdict

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Craig McClellan, the Cusimanos’ attorney, said he was “shocked” and disappointed by the verdict and predicted his client would appeal.

McClellan, who sought $6.8 million in damages for Frank Jr., said he believed evidence regarding comparative injury and death rates associated with other types of recreational vehicles swayed the jury in Honda’s favor. Such statistics showed that the risk of injury from snowmobiling, motorcycles and even bicycling was as great or greater than that with ATVs.

“That hurt us, no doubt about it,” said McClellan, who fought against admission of the evidence. “The problem with that is that you still have more people dying on ATVs than you should, period, regardless of what’s happening with other vehicles. It’s like the early Pintos with the exploding gas tanks. Ford would point to other car makers and say their vehicles were causing injuries too, but that wasn’t the point.”

Frank Jr. and other members of the Cusimano family, present in the courtroom during most of the trial, were absent when the verdict was read and could not be reached for comment. McClellan said they were “stunned” and “saddened.”

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Nationwide Attention

The trial drew nationwide attention from personal injury lawyers because it featured testimony from one of Honda’s top corporate officials. Honda attorneys resisted attempts to subpoena Tetsuo Chino, but the senior managing director of Honda Motor Co. was ultimately compelled to testify by the state Supreme Court.

In four days on the witness stand, Chino, who also is chairman of Gardena-based American Honda Motor Co. Inc., defended the company’s products and its record of correcting alleged deficiencies. He said an inquiry into consumer complaints had produced a report that concluded accidents were caused by rider irresponsibility.

Steven Archer, a Los Angeles attorney who has handled about six ATV-related cases and closely watched the San Diego proceeding, said Tuesday’s verdict was “unfortunate” but would not bar future claims for injuries and fatalities associated with the vehicles. Archer noted that future juries will have knowledge of the recent sales ban on the three-wheel models and predicted that knowledge “will carry some weight.”

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“I’m disappointed on behalf of all of the ATV-related claimants that we didn’t get a verdict, but sooner or later the tide is going to turn,” Archer said. “As long as there are vehicles out there--and there are one million three-wheelers out there--you are going to see the crippling injuries and deaths and more litigation. Eventually, these will come down in our favor.”

Training for Riders

Bob Astenius, an ATV enthusiast who runs a Big Bear-based company that conducts training courses for off-road vehicle riders, praised the verdict, saying that his experience has led him to conclude that tragedy occurs when riders are unskilled.

“Our company has trained over 73,000 riders, and my opinion is the major cause for these horrible accidents and fatalities has been rider attitude and behavior,” said Astenius, who also is a chief instructor with the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, a manufacturer-funded training organization. “Children riding unsupervised is one factor, as is small children on too large of an ATV. A lack of protective gear is another problem.”

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The accident at issue in the case occured six years ago on a vacant lot in Spring Valley.

Cusimano’s attorneys said the boy, who was 9 at the time, was riding as a passenger behind his neighbor, Jason Kardos, when Cusimano’s foot came off the vehicle’s foot peg and was trapped, causing him to be thrown from the cycle. The accident left Cusimano semi-paralyzed and with a vocabulary of about 40 words.


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