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Rick Shapiro
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Burned Alive: Corporate Indifference and Defective Lawnmowers

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Just days before Christmas in 2010, 88-year-old Frank Wright got on his Ryobi ride-on lawnmower to mulch and vacuum up leaves that collected on his backyard. While mowing, a fire suddenly broke out causing his clothing to catch on fire.

In the blink of an eye, Frank was engulfed in flames. He tried to crawl away from the burning mower, but the flames were too strong.  His wife of 67 years, Audrey, looked out the back window of the home and saw her husband being burned alive. She attempted to “put him out” using stray leaves, but it was too late.

When fire marshals showed up, the third degree burns to Frank were too extensive to save him. He died in his backyard doing something most people do on a routine basis – mowing leaves.

Frank Wright’s widow wasn’t prepared to deal with any further horror.  The trauma of seeing her husband burned alive was just too much.

However, her son-in-law, Steve Bilenky, wanted justice and to protect other consumers from a similar, horrific fate. He didn’t believe the lawnmower could burst into flames and kill like this without defect.

He was right.  But only fortuity combined with persistence, resulted in justice.

In early 2011, Bilenky reached out to a couple of local personal injury lawyers who investigated what happened with the local fire marshal. The attorneys concluded they could not help, mainly because research did not turn up any “defects” on Ryobi ride-on mowers. Sometime after that, Steve read a newspaper article about personal injury lawyer Richard (Rick) Shapiro, a U.S. inventor and designer of consumer products, holding 18 US patents. Shapiro looked through the initial materials and promised Bilenky a full investigation.

Initial Investigation Proves Fruitless

The Fire Marshall with the City of Chesapeake investigated the Ryobi ride-on mower involved in the tragic incident, including research into defects and possible recalls of the product. Mr. and Mrs. Wright purchased the mower at a Home Depot store in 2005. The fire and sudden death of Mr. Wright occurred in December 2010. The Fire Marshall located no available evidence of a recall or any defect pertaining to the Ryobi ride-on lawnmower.

Shapiro was just beginning his investigation and decided to team with Kansas City product liability lawyer, Rob Sullivan, who had worked on fire cases involving automobiles. Sullivan recommended one expert who could analyze the mower for fire damage and forensically assess the cause. The lawyers arranged to transport the burned up mower involved in the incident to the expert engineer in Texas, named Steve Christofferson. Shapiro arranged to purchase two Ryobi mowers for sale on e-bay that were used but the same models. These used mowers helped unravel what exactly went wrong.

Digging Deeper into Recalls by Ryobi’s Contract Manufacturer

One puzzle piece leads to another fitting in place. Sullivan and Christofferson discovered that numerous recalls of ride-on mower parts between 2000 and 2006 involved the contract manufacturer of the Ryobi mowers that were sold in Home Depot stores – the large manufacturer Husqvarna. Sullivan reached out to an investigator based in Washington D.C. who specialized in coordinating Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) requests, to dig deep into all the documents relating to recalls of Husqvarna-manufactured mowers.

Recalls Lead to Fuel Line Defect Discoveries

The recall FOIA investigation revealed that numerous Husqvarna ride-on lawnmowers were recalled by 2006 because the mower fuel line could too easily detach from the plastic fuel tank outlet, resulting in a serious risk of a fires. Was this what caused Frank Wright’s Ryobi mower to burst into flames also?  There had never been a recall on the Ryobi mowers for this fuel line detachment issue.

Christofferson used replacement gas tanks that were made available for the Ryobi mowers to test his theory.  Husqvarna and Ryobi provided a redesigned plastic fuel tank with a better fuel tank outlet but only if Ryobi buyers requested a replacement tank.  The new fuel tank outlet was redesigned with large barbs intended to more securely hold the fuel line.  

Christofferson purchased this replacement tank for the Ryobi mower and this produce a key piece of information. Christofferson concluded that the fuel line slipped off of the fuel tank outlet on the plastic fuel tank on Mr. Wright’s Ryobi mower causing it to suddenly catch fire and engulf Mr. Wright in flames.

Suit Filed Against Ryobi and Home Depot

Sullivan and Shapiro now had adequate evidence of product defects to support warranty and negligence claims against manufacturer Ryobi.  After the exchange of significant discovery documentation, Home Depot and Ryobi claimed there had never been a fire on a Ryobi ride-on lawnmower and that there had been over 18,000 mowers produced.  Moreover, Ryobi claimed that recalls of other brand mowers with identical recalled fuel tank designs were somehow irrelevant to the issues in Frank Wright’s situation.

In the Darkest Hour, Truth Rises to the Surface

Convinced that the 2006 recall evidence was a smoking gun, Shapiro and Sullivan pushed forward against Ryobi: the very same fuel tank/line connection had been recalled on thousands of other ride-on mowers because of leaking gas and other fires. The defective recalled part just happened to be on other Husqvarna mowers and not on the 18,000 Ryobi mowers with similar tank outlets and fuel lines.

Months before trial, both Ryobi and Home Depot, who were jointly represented, moved the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia to exclude all evidence of any other recalls because they did not involve Ryobi. The federal magistrate judge ruled that no 2006 recall evidence would be admissible at trial.  The lawyers and Bilenky were depressed, but never gave up hope.

It was the same fuel line and plastic fuel tank connection!

Defense Counsel’s “Reply All” Folly

Less than a week before trial, the defense counsel for Ryobi and Home Depot gave Sullivan and Shapiro an unexpected gift. The defense counsel unintentionally informed them that there was indeed a prior fire which engulfed the exact same Ryobi ride-on lawnmower in flames in Indiana just a few months prior to Mr. Wright’s tragic incident. Sullivan and Shapiro discovered this revelation because the Ryobi attorney inadvertently hit “Reply All” to an email meant to be seen only by his co-counsel.

“[What] Plaintiffs do not know is that Dan [Nielson] investigated this; we are looking at his report and the questions he was asked at his deposition.”

This innocuous “reply all” was meant for the Ryobi team of defense attorneys but all came to Sullivan and Shapiro. The import of this disclosure was that Ryobi’s key expert witness, Dan Nielson had himself investigated the prior Ryobi mower fire, but when asked if there had been any similar fires on the 18,000 Ryobi mowers, he had said there were not.  The Indiana mower fire was so sudden and violent, it has burned the owner’s entire home to the ground.  Wright’s attorneys  promptly moved for judicial sanctions and punitive actions against the defense expert witness, Dan Nielson, who investigated the prior Indiana fire but denied knowing about any prior fires during his deposition.

The defense attorneys claimed that the prior Indiana fire was only discovered by happenstance when a Husqvarna paralegal working on a different case found it.

The Honorable Judge Raymond A. Jackson, presiding over the Wright trial starting in two business days, was incensed by the 11th hour disclosure and demanded a telephone conference with the lawyers to get to the bottom of how this prior fire could be disclosed so late in the litigation process. The judge wanted answers and since there was no time for locating new witnesses, he urged the attorneys on both sides to hammer out a judicial admission to be read to the jury explaining the prior Indiana fire.  If the attorneys did not agree, he would decide what the jury would be told.  Predictably, the attorneys could not resolve a “judicial admission” explaining the Indiana fire.

Another telephone conference with Judge Jackson followed and the Judge decided to postpone the trial one day and require that Ryobi expert witness Dan Nielsen appear for a hearing on the morning of trial.

The bottom line: Nielsen testified that he “forgot” about the Indiana fire involving the Ryobi ride-on mower. Of course, during the hearing, he “now” recalled it and admitted that his deposition testimony was therefore inaccurate. Judge Jackson excluded Mr. Nielsen’s testimony from being admitted at trial, and advised the attorneys what the jury would be told about the prior Indiana Ryobi mower fire.

The Truth Tends to Rise to the Surface

In addition to excluding Mr. Nielsen’s testimony, Judge Jackson crafted a “judicial admission” about the existence of the prior Ryobi fire in Indiana. This “admission” meant that it would be introduced as evidence in court and read to the jury without any counter-statement by the defense counsel. The existence of the Indiana fire was, for all intents and purposes, “admitted.”

The trial began. Mr. Wright’s widow, Audrey, testified by videotape deposition and explained the horror of seeing her husband burning alive crawling across the ground and how she tried to help him but to no avail. They were married for 67 years and she was now alone, left with the final memory of her husband being burned alive.

Several fire marshals testified about how the flames extended so high above the mower that it looked like a napalm fire. One of Frank’s neighbors who lived across the street explained how Frank and Audrey were the only neighbors who offered to watch his kid after school when he or his wife were late getting home from work. That’s just the kind of people they were – good, decent people.

The defense for Ryobi consisted of a series of accusations meant to demean the life of Frank Wright. For example, they claimed that Mr. Wright was suffering from dementia, had a terrible heart condition, and could barely walk without a walker. They even claimed that it was “misuse” for an elderly senior, over 65, to use a ride-on lawn mower. The evidence was infuriating and the Court did not buy it. Judge Jackson properly ruled that the jury would not consider any of Frank Wright’s  pre-existing health conditions as a contributing cause of the sudden fire on the mower.

$2.5 Million Verdict

After deliberating for a number of hours, the jury returned a verdict for $2.5 million in favor of Audrey Wright, Mr. Wright’s widow.  The jury determined that Ryobi negligently designed the ride-on mower and that faulty design legally caused the deadly fire on December 23, 2010.

The Heroes

Steve Bilenky, the son-in-law, is a hero. His persistence was amazing and he offered many ideas that Shapiro and Sullivan pursued during the course of litigation.

Judge Jackson was a hero for demanding answers and getting to the bottom of how corporate defense lawyers could wait to disclose vital, relevant information just two days before a jury trial in federal court when litigation has been ongoing for well over a year.  

The jurors were heroes. They sorted through the evidence and arrived at their verdict in favor of the widow, Audrey Wright.  

Corporate Indifference Lost This Round

This verdict is an exemplar of how corporate indifference will not carry the day. Ryobi knew, dating back to 2006, that there was a serious safety issue related to the fuel line-fuel tank outlet connection on their ride-on mowers. Did they initiate a nationwide recall to help protect U.S. consumers in 2006? No. Did they send letters to recent purchasers notifying them about this serious safety issue that prompted a re-designed fuel tank outlet? No. They hoped a “silent recall” would silence the serious safety risk.  But the “silent recall” was trumped by a loud and clear jury verdict against Ryobi.

(Note: this case is presently on appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The ECF case number is: 2:13cv345, Bilenky v. Ryobi Technologies, Inc.)