I’ve been a Virginia trial attorney for 30 years now and I continue to be surprised at how unpredictable plaintiff’s personal injury law can be. I recently concluded a Virginia product defect wrongful death case involving a Chesapeake resident who burned alive on a Ryobi ride-on lawn mower. This case had more twists and turns than any case in my career. What do I mean by twists and turns? Come along for this ride.
Before I was ever approached to represent the family of the victim, a very capable Virginia personal injury law firm had a chance to take this case on. From what I’ve been told, a very able attorney with this firm spoke to the Fire Marshal about what occurred with the Ryobi ride-on mower. Presumably, these attorneys did due diligence and could find no information about product defects that affected this mower or might have caused a fuel-fed fire.
For additional information about this Virginia product defect wrongful death case, check out these related articles:
- Case summary – Norfolk, Virginia jury awards family of man burned alive by defective ride-on lawnmower 2.5 million dollars.
- Court of Appeals upholds $2.5 million jury verdict in defective Ryobi ride-on lawnmower wrongful death case.
How Our Virginia Wrongful Death Law Firm Got Involved
My Virginia Beach neighbor down the street informed me that his 88-year-old father-in-law suffered a horrific death when a fire broke out on his ride-on lawn mower. I was shocked and offered my condolences. He also mentioned that another attorney reviewed the facts and did not think there was a viable product defect wrongful death case. I thought otherwise.
Our Team Goes to Work
I located a mechanical engineer who had experience reviewing product defect cases. I got the incinerated mower from the Chesapeake Fire Marshal (I actually had it trucked up to the expert to analyze the damaged mower). Some weeks later, I got a phone call from that engineer expert.
“Rick, I hate to tell you this, but I’ve done all the research possible on this particular brand of mower, and I can’t find any prior defects or recalls on Ryobi mowers to support a case here.” He apologized and asked me what we should do with the burned-up mower since he could not help. But we were not ready to throw in the towel.
I already decided that the best way to build a case was to team with the Kansas City, Missouri attorney who I met at a number of national trial attorney legal seminars. His name is Rob Sullivan. We conferred about the bad news and Rob indicated that he wanted to still send the burned-up mower to a different mechanical engineer expert; one located in Texas. We arranged to have the burned up mower trucked from the east coast to Texas for analysis.
This turned out to be a prophetic move, but more serendipity was required even after the selection of the Texas expert. My client, from down the street, had his own businesses and was always on the Internet. He called me one day and said that we could find other examples of the used mower, for sale right now, on eBay, or Craigslist for that matter.
We arranged to not only buy two used similar mowers but to have them trucked across the United States to our expert in Texas. The expert did homework on whether there had been any recalls on the fuel system, which includes a plastic fuel tank and a fuel line. Our expert made some important findings:
- A contract manufacturer, Husqvarna, had made the Ryobi mower, and made Craftsman for Sears, Poulon Pro, and several other brands.
- There were recalls on similar mowers, with similar fuel system parts, but not any recalls on Ryobi branded mowers sold at Home Depot.
Our expert also learned that a few years after our client bought his mower, if a consumer called for a replacement fuel tank, that they supplied a better tank with an improved fuel tank nipple/outlet, and a better secure connection method.
We also hired an investigator in Washington D.C. to search through the Consumer Product Safety Commission records looking for recalls by the manufacturer that made the Ryobi mower and learned that Husqvarna actually manufactured the Ryobi mower and then they placard the Ryobi brand name on the finished product, where it was sold only at Home Depot stores.
Defective Fuel Tank
There was a problem with the fuel line causing it to separate from the fuel tank at the connection nipple, also called the fuel tank outlet. Typically, there are several different methods for keeping a fuel line connected to a fuel tank outlet. There had been recalls by Husqvarna of various fuel tank and fuel line connections-on other mowers with the identical parts, but not on Ryobi labeled mowers. The manufacturer even learned of some mowers with similar parts had caught fire, and some were from the fuel line separating from the fuel tanks. Voluntary recalls had occurred, but again, on other branded mowers made by Husqvarna.
While our wrongful death lawsuit was pending in the federal court in Norfolk, Virginia, we moved for the right to be able to advise a jury about the prior similar recalls, which did not involve Ryobi, but involved the same type of fuel tank and fuel line connection separation issues, known by the contract manufacturer of the Ryobi mowers.
Legal Setback, But Undeterred
Just a couple of months before trial, the judge ruled that the recalls were not similar enough because the recalls did not involve Ryobi mowers, despite being nearly identical parts. Therefore, they were ruled inadmissible evidence for our trial. We were depressed and dejected as was our mechanical engineer expert. We felt that the fuel tanks and fuel line connections were identical, but the judge did not agree. We realized we still could prove that the replacement tank design with more secure outlets and fuel line connection had been introduced after Mr. Wright had been burned alive, and this spoke volumes about knowledge of a fuel line connection problem.
Dirty Defense Tactics
During discovery, we looked into whether there had been any prior similar defects involving fires on Ryobi mowers and were met with an answer that there had never been a similar incident or fire. Finally, about a week before the trial, we received a last-minute response from Ryobi and its attorneys that disclosed there had been one prior fire involving the fuel system and it had occurred six months before Mr. Wright died due to a similar incident involving a mower that suddenly caught fire. The similar incident occurred in Indiana and had burned an entire house down after the mower caught fire inside the garage right after being used. See the images of that burned up mower and nothing left of the home.
Rob Sullivan and I were apoplectic. This information should have been disclosed far earlier in the litigation process (the lawsuit was filed in 2012 and the trial did not commence until early 2015). There were many excuses from the defense on why the information had not been produced earlier. We contended this was a dirty tactic, plain and simple.
The trial was postponed one day for the judge to have a hearing and look into the late-filed evidence produced by Ryobi’s defense attorneysl. The judge wound up excluding an expert witness that was going to testify for Ryobi. The court found that he falsely testified in an earlier deposition he gave when he said there had been no prior similar fires on Ryobi mowers.
Rob and I were emboldened and thought perhaps we could overcome obstacles and prove that Ryobi should have warned consumers of the dangers of fuel line separations from the fuel tanks. Also, we proved through our mechanical engineer expert that years before Mr. Wright had burned on his mower in the fire, if consumers of a Ryobi mower called and wanted a replacement fuel tank, that Ryobi was providing a newly designed tank with a better fuel tank outlet and fuel line connection. We argued that this meant Ryobi knew they had problems years before the incident occurred and that they should have warned all consumers who bought their mowers.
Multi-Day Trial Results in Justice for Family
The Norfolk, Virginia jury trial lasted nearly a full week. The defense tried to point to anything else that could have caused the mower to catch fire. They brought up the cold weather, the fact that there were leaves in Mr. Wright’s backyard, they even brought up his age to imply he should not have been operating their product. The jury did not buy it and returned a verdict for $2.5 Million finding Ryobi negligent in that it failed to warn consumers of the problems.
The jury awarded the full amount of the verdict to Audrey Wright, Mr. Wright’s widow who had seen him in the backyard burned up due to the fuel-fed fire. They had been married since since they were in their twenties and it ended in horror.
Dirty Defense Tactics, Part 2
After the trial was over, the defense lawyers for Ryobi wrote a letter advising the judge that they again, but only after the trial had ended, discovered additional information that had not been provided to us as the attorneys for Mr. Wright’s estate. They disclosed some new information that still is under court seal to this day.
$2.5 Million Jury Verdict Upheld
The case then went up on appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, because Ryobi claimed that the jury verdict was invalid. Ryobi claimed that we failed to prove a product defect (what?), and that Ryobi had “nothing to do with this ride-on mower placarded as a “Ryobi” mower (what?) and they alleged that excluding their expert who falsely testified was improper action by the trial court judge.
The Court of Appeals denied those claims and upheld the jury verdict. Recognizing that the only appeal left was to the U.S. Supreme Court, Ryobi finally realized the futility of a further appeal, and satisfied the judgment and the case was concluded. Finally, the family could rest assured that justice had been done, and they hope that this case stood for at least the core the principle that no person—of any age—should use a ride-on mower and perish in a sudden gas fed fire.
As you can see, the twists and the turns on this case were unbelievable. As a Virginia personal injury attorney, you can never presume you will win a product defect case, and you can never presume you will lose either. Persistence is what pays off in the end.