More lawsuits claiming Polaris ATVs suddenly caught fire, resulting in injuries, have been filed in Hennepin County District Court.
The new cases involve fires that occurred this year, including one that resulted in a passenger’s death. One also involved a replacement vehicle issued to an Arizona man after his original Polaris 2015 off-road RZR vehicle caught fire.
Medina-based Polaris — a $6.1 billion maker of off-road vehicles, snowmobiles and motorcycles — said it will not comment on individual cases but has denied wrongdoing in court papers.
To date, plaintiffs from around the country filed at least nine lawsuits against Polaris for vehicle fires and burns. Three cases were filed in Minnesota this year, preceded by four other cases in 2017 and 2018. The other two are being heard in California.
All of the Minnesota cases — and any future ones filed — will be heard by one judge, as of now, Hennepin County District Judge Daniel Moreno. Polaris had asked for the “companionable cases” ruling because, though details might be different, they deal with similar questions of law and it would make the discovery process smoother.
Last week, the court agreed and dismissed one count in a lawsuit that could have set a precedent, causing that case and potentially others like it to be handled in federal court. Going forward, most cases will stay in Minnesota.
The first jury trial among the cases is set for May 11. It was filed in August 2017 and involves a 2017 RZR fire that resulted in burns on Montana resident Colby Thompson’s face and body.
A set of new fire claims, filed in 2019, come after years of Polaris four-wheeler recalls, hundreds of thousands of repairs and a thorough review of all manufacturing processes to avoid any more overheating and fire issues. Polaris spent hundreds of millions on the problems, including a nearly $28 million fine last year to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
With the most recent cases, the lawsuits involve 18 plaintiffs from eight states who claim Polaris vehicles they were riding erupted in flames not caused by an accident, crash, tip-over or other precursors. The three new lawsuits filed this year involve one 2019 RZR, one 2017 model and one 2015 model.
Polaris spokeswoman Jessica Rogers said riders’ safety is the company’s top priority.
“We stand by the safety and quality of our vehicles,” she said. “Given the ongoing litigation, Polaris plans to respond to the allegations and claims in the appropriate legal forum.”
She declined to comment further.
The lawsuits accuse Polaris of making defective off-road vehicles, of negligence and warranty breaches, and of failing to adequately warn riders of fire hazards.
They are the latest in a string of fire and product-defect lawsuits to slam the $6.1 billion Polaris, which manufactures snowmobiles, motorcycles, boats and electric vehicles in addition to rugged “off-road” four-wheelers like the RZR.
In a case filed in July, Idaho resident James Bingham and the family of his passenger, Steven Groves said Bingham’s 2017 Polaris RZR Turbo “suddenly and without warning burst into flames” on May 11 during a ride around the Weiser Sand Dunes in Idaho.
Groves died after experiencing burns to most of his body. Bingham survived but suffered “significant burns” to his legs, shoulders, back, neck and left arm and hand. Bingham and the Groves family are seeking more than $50,000 in damages.
Polaris denied the allegations in court documents and said the plaintiffs had been negligent, contributing to the accident because they “misused” or “abused” the RZR Turbo vehicle.
Bingham’s attorney Jeffrey Eisenberg said in an interview: “I think it’s very unfortunate that Polaris, having still not solved this problem of fires, would blame the consumer. What vehicle should simply burst into flames during operation?”
In a case filed in August, California residents Chad Thies and Thomas Lamb said they were badly burned on Feb. 23 after their new 2019 RZR Turbo caught fire during a ride in Riverside, Calif.
In June, Arizona resident Jason Henke sued Polaris, saying his 2015 RZR “suddenly burst into flames” on a Jan. 2 ride. He suffered burns to his hand, wrist, arm and face, the complaint said.
The RZR was a replacement vehicle that Polaris gave him after his first 2015 RZR caught fire, the lawsuit said. Polaris refused to refund his money after that first RZR burned, but gave Henke a new vehicle instead, the lawsuit said — adding that Polaris “indicated it would be a safe vehicle.”
Polaris has recalled more than 450,000 vehicles made between 2008 and 2018 — most for fire and crash hazards.
In 2019, Polaris had two recalls. It called back 3,900 electric vehicles plus an unknown number of RZRs because of brake or sudden acceleration problems. This year’s recalls didn’t involve fire concerns.