Polaris has been the leading all-terrain vehicle (ATV) manufacturer in the U.S., but the company’s reputation and sales have taken hits recently due to serious and persistent design defects in a number of the company’s recreational off-road vehicle (ROV) models beginning in 2011. The defect in the engine’s design poses an unreasonable risk of fire and has caused more than 250 fires, more than 30 severe injuries and at least three deaths.

The defect

In 2011, Polaris began incorporating in its RZRs and Rangers an engine it revamped in-house. Rather than outsource the project to experts, Polaris sacrificed consumer safety to save money and increase profits. The 45-168-horsepower engine is much more powerful than its predecessors. The pipes for the exhaust gas were rerouted so that they travel in the direction of the ROV rider before snaking into a U-shape and finally exiting from the rear. The new design fails to provide proper ventilation and heat shielding. The piping also is separated from the rider by only flimsy and combustible plastic body panels. Polaris’ positioning of flammable plastic body components in such close proximity to uncharacteristically hot exhaust piping created a recipe for sudden and unexpected vehicles fires. Polaris is compounding the fire risk by trapping the exhaust temperatures in a confined space through imprudently placed heat shielding coupled with a lack of effective active or passive heat evacuation.

The defect began gaining attention after the death of 15-year-old Baylee Hoaldridge of Utah. The teen was riding with her father and grandfather in a rented RZR 900 on July 4, 2015, when it tipped over as it was going into a turn and traveling about 5 mph. After tipping over, the engine ignited and fire spread quickly to where Hoaldridge was trapped in her seat. Her father and grandfather say they will never forget her screams. Although she survived, 65 percent of her body was burned, and she died four months later from complications that resulted from the burns.

Failed recalls and delayed warnings

The Minnesota-based company has issued several recalls for multiple models of ROVs in its Ranger and RZR ROV lines to address problems with its “ProStar” engines since 2013. However, the ROVs continue to pose a serious safety risk to drivers and passengers. And, in April, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) fined Polaris $27.25 million for failing to “immediately report to CPSC that models of RZR and Ranger [ROVs] contained defects that could create a substantial product hazard or that the ROVs created an unreasonable risk of serious injury or death.” The agency explained that Polaris knew about the defect but waited to report it, and the delayed warning resulted in “…reports of 150 fires, including one that resulted in the death of a 15-year old passenger [Hoaldridge], 11 reports of burn injuries, and a fire that consumed ten acres of land.” The company agreed to settle with the CPSC, but did not admit any wrongdoing.

Class-action filed over economic damages

While the defect sparked a number of injury and wrongful death lawsuits, in addition to the civil penalties slapped on Polaris, Beasley Allen filed a class action lawsuit just days after the CPSC announced the record civil penalty against Polaris. The lawsuit will include approximately 300,000 consumers that, had they known about the defect, would not have purchased the ROVs. The legal challenge is intended to hasten the company’s efforts to implement an effective solution.

Beasley Allen
Star Tribune
InDepthNHFox13Now (Salt Lake City, Utah affiliate)
Consumer Product Safety Commission

Clay Barnett

Clay specializes in automotive defect class action litigation.

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