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All-terrain vehicle conflict in Montana defective product suits

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is the federal agency responsible for all-terrain vehicle safety. In Montana, the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks regulates ATV laws. Some critics, including the Consumer Federation of America, believe states should forbid the use of ATVs on public roads.

The Consumer Federation argues ATVs were not designed to be used on roads. ATV manufacturers and federal agencies agree with the advocacy group's assessment. In Montana, ATVs are permitted on some public roads, provided operators are licensed and off-highway vehicles have "street legal" equipment.

Between 1982 and 2011, Montana recorded 94 ATV-related deaths -- how many of those fatalities involved road use was not reported. An analysis of 2007 ATV accident information from the CPSC revealed 65 percent of ATV deaths nationwide were road-related fatalities. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 74 percent of all ATV fatalities are the result of road accidents.

Opponents to public road use of all-terrain vehicles claim ATVs are not built for paved roads. An ATV can be tip prone, particularly in turns, due to a small-width wheel base and high center of gravity. Tires on ATVs are compatible with terrain, not paved surfaces.

Lawmakers in several states have ruled against multiple warnings and in favor of ATV road use. The conflict between laws and safety advice can create legal problems for consumers harmed while riding ATVs. A state may authorize the operation of ATVs on roads, but it may be difficult for a consumer to prove a manufacturer was liable for an on-road injury.

An ATV manufacturer, as a defendant in a product liability lawsuit, might argue the plaintiff's injury was due to misuse of a product rather than a flaw in the vehicle. It could be difficult for a civil court to award damages for a serious injury, if the plaintiff ignored manufacturer warnings about the dangers of road use.

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