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David v. Goliath - How Two Trial Attorneys Took on a Negligent Corporation and Won

Days before Christmas 2010, Frank Wright got on his Ryobi ride-on lawnmower to mulch and vacuum up leaves that collected in his backyard in Chesapeake, Virginia. 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. Frank 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.

Attorneys Investigate

Rick Shapiro and Rob Sullivan, two seasoned trial attorneys, met with Steve to discuss what happened and they suspected the fire may have been the result of a defect in the mower. They decided to investigate to see if there was a basis for a claim.

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.

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. 

Digging Deeper into Recalls by Ryobi’s Contract Manufacturer

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. 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.

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.

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 testified there were not.  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 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. Judge Jackson 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: 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

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.

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.

(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.)

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