Interview of Richard N. Shapiro Regarding the $2.5 Million Defective Ryobi Ride-on Mower Jury Verdict
After a five-day Norfolk, Virginia federal jury trial, the jury returned a $2.5 million verdict in favor of the widow of an 88-year-old man who burned to death after his Ryobi ride-on lawn mower exploded in fire during use. The verdict was against Ryobi Technologies, Inc. and held the company liable for negligence in design, failure to inspect or failing to warn about the fire risks involving the ride-on lawn mower, which was sold by Home Depot. Attorneys for the family include Virginia Beach & Norfolk wrongful death lawyer Richard N. Shapiro and Kansas City, Missouri product liability lawyer Rob Sullivan. I assisted Rick Shapiro and Rob Sullivan on this fascinating case, and I had a chance to sit down with Rick Shapiro to interview him about some of the twists and turns leading to this major jury verdict.
Austin: First and foremost, congratulations on the victory. Were you surprised by the $2.5 million verdict against Ryobi?
Shapiro: You are always holding your breath when you await a verdict. But, the facts and evidence were on our side. We discovered that Ryobi knew there was a defect that can allow the fuel line to separate from the plastic fuel tank on this Ryobi model mower and Ryobi offered a newly designed fuel tank as a replacement tank within a year of Mr. Wright’s purchase of his Ryobi mower. Rob Sullivan, who tried the case with me, called this a “silent recall” and it was totally silent, no consumers ever knew about it. Ryobi failed to notify purchasers that their fuel tank may be defective, and knew that the fuel line could separate from the fuel tank outlet on the original tanks. If that wasn’t bad enough, we also discovered that a similar Ryobi mower fire occurred just five months prior to Mr. Wright’s tragic accident. That fire was bad enough to burn down the entire house and the connected garage. Yet, no notice or warning was sent out to Ryobi purchasers, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission was never notified either
The defenses raised were simply not credible. Their arguments focused on Mr. Wright’s age and health and the argument that he was “plowing” leaves. There was virtually no evidence to support these defenses and the Judge ruled his health had nothing to do with fire, and the jury decided he wasn’t plowing leaves, instead finding Ryobi was negligent.
Austin: So what was your theory of this wrongful death case?
Shapiro: We contended that Mr. Wright was mowing his lawn, just like anyone would, on his Ryobi ride-on mower when the fuel line separated from the fuel tank-but this area is hidden from view under the mower front hood. The fuel line started leaking gasoline, and this resulting in a fiery gas explosion. The explosion engulfed Mr. Wright in flames, he managed to crawl away about twenty feet but he died shortly from massive third degree burns. Mr. Wright was a wonderful man,, his neighbor and other family members testified. He was a World War II veteran and married to his wife for over 65 years. It was a horrible way to die, and was a totally preventable death.
Austin: How long did you litigate this case?
Shapiro: We’ve spent over two years working on this case, with tremendous assistance from my co-counsel, Rob Sullivan, a Missouri product liability and wrongful death attorney. Ryobi devoted most of this time to hiding relevant information in its files since August 2010, and they denied from day one that this was a gasoline-fed fire that one witness described as “napalm” exploding in Mr. Wright’s backyard. This case demonstrates what is bad corporate conduct, and I emphasize that there are many good companies that do not engage in this type of behavior.
Austin: How was the Wright family affected?
Shapiro: They were traumatized by this awful event, especially Mr. Wright’s wife. She heard the explosion and rushed outside to see her husband engulfed in flames. She did everything she could to try and put the fire out, but he was covered in gasoline so the fire was simply too strong. All she could do was watch in absolute horror as her husband burned to death. I should also point out that this awful accident occurred on December 23, 2010, just two days before Christmas. Obviously, the holiday season will now be forever linked to this heartbreaking incident. His widow emphasized to me repeatedly that this should never happen to any other consumer who bought this model mower, and we are getting the word out.
Austin: How do you think the jury arrived at $2.5 million for the verdict?
Shapiro: Well, we asked for $3 million during our closing argument. We emphasized that as you get to the twilight of your life, every day is even more precious and the jury did not discount the verdict for his age, knowing that Ryobi could have prevented this tragedy.
Austin: Now that the jury decided in your favor, what are you doing currently?
Shapiro: We are doing a couple important things. First, we’ve written a letter to the Consumer Product Safety Commission requesting an investigation into the Ryobi mower model involved in our case and are seeking a recall of this model, Ryobi model HDK19H42, which were sold between 2005-2007 at Home Depot stores nationwide. Approximately 18,000 mowers were sold so there are other mowers that are “ticking time bombs” and could have the same fire hazard as Mr. Wright’s mower. Second, we are asking the CPSC to investigate whether Ryobi and Husqvarna, the contract manufacturer of the mower, failed to report the Indiana 2010 mower fire and whether there was a deliberate effort to skirt the federal law.
Austin: How could Ryobi happen to learn about the 2010 Indiana Ryobi mower fire, just days before the January 2015 jury trial?
Shapiro: That’s what we wondered, and we moved the federal judge to sanction or punish the defendants. He excluded one of the defense expert witnesses from testifying, after his court testimony, the day before trial, explaining that he had “forgotten” about the prior Ryobi Indiana 2010 fire. In fact, he had given a sworn deposition months before, and had denied that there had even been a prior Ryobi same model fire before the one on our Wright case. In fact, he had investigated that Indiana fire and had his notes still on his laptop, but denied he had “recalled” the Indiana fire.
Shapiro: You can’t make this up, fact is always stranger than fiction.
Austin: Thanks Rick, I’ll include a link to the Ryobi ride-on lawn tractor (mower) CPSC letter for consumers who want more details about the Ryobi ride-on lawn mower/lawn tractor involved.