Jury Returns $ 2.5 Million Verdict for Family of Man Burned and Killed Operating Ryobi Ride-On Mower

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After a five-day trial, the family of a man who burned to death after a Ryobi ride-on lawn mower exploded while he was operating the mower received a $2.5 million verdict from a Norfolk, Virginia jury holding Ryobi liable for negligence. Attorneys for the family include Virginia Beach & Norfolk wrongful death lawyer Rick Shapiro and Kansas City, Missouri wrongful death lawyer Rob Sullivan.

Ryobi tried to convince the jury that a senior citizen’s life had a discounted value, and we contended that every day of life is precious no matter what age you are.

“It’s about basic accountability,” said Rob Sullivan, one of the wrongful death attorneys representing the Estate of Frank S. Wright, during closing arguments to the jury in the Norfolk, VA jury trial against manufacturer Ryobi and Home Depot, which sold the Ryobi mower. The case was Bilenky v. Ryobi, et. al, case number 2:13-cv-00345. Mr. Sullivan and Virginia co-counsel Richard N. Shapiro convinced the jury to hold Ryobi accountable with a verdict of $2.5 million after determining that the company’s ride-on lawn mower, operated by an 88-year-old Chesapeake, Virginia resident named Frank Wright, exploded and burned him to death as he tried to crawl away from the burning mower on December 23, 2010. (See 2:13-cv-00345, at ECF No. 165)

Mr. Wright’s estate, represented by Virginia Beach & Norfolk wrongful death lawyer Richard Shapiro and Mr. Rob Sullivan, a Kansas City, Missouri wrongful death attorney, battled the companies for about two years for the family before the jury reached the verdict. The suit was tried in the Eastern District of Virginia, Norfolk Division, Federal District Court before the Honorable Judge Raymond A. Jackson.

“Ryobi tried to convince the jury that a senior citizen’s life had a discounted value, and we contended that every day of life is precious no matter what age you are,” said Mr. Shapiro.

Mr. Shapiro and Mr. Sullivan contended that Ryobi knew that the design of the plastic fuel tank and fuel line connection on the ride-on lawn mower was insecure and Ryobi was aware of the risk of sudden fires. (See 2:13-cv-00345, ECF No. 72). A new fuel tank was made available within one year of Mr. Wright purchasing his Ryobi mower from a Home Depot store. (Id.) Mr. Wright’s mower was one of about 18,000 such mowers sold between 2005 and 2007 at Home Depot stores. (Id. at ECF No. 133).

The team of Shapiro and Sullivan uncovered evidence that Ryobi had knowledge of previous fuel line separations and one major prior fire involving the same model Ryobi lawn tractor. (Id.) Ryobi decided to offer a “replacement tank” which held the fuel line more securely, but never issued a recall or notice letter to the original buyers. (Id.) No recall, notice, warning, or alert was sent to any of the 18,000 plus purchasers of these Ryobi model lawn mowers, despite the companies knowing of the serious safety risks of sudden fires associated with the potential fuel line separation defect. (Id.)

For two years, before the trial commenced, both Ryobi and Home Depot denied that any other similar Ryobi lawn tractor fires occurred prior to Mr. Wright’s tragic death. (Id.) However, just a few days before trial, evidence was brought to light indicating another Ryobi mower fire occurred in Indiana that burned a home to the ground. (Id. at ECF No. 138). This similar fire occurred just five months before the lawn mower fire that took the life of Mr. Wright. (Id.) Again, there was no recall, notice, warning, or alert provided by Ryobi to buyers of this Ryobi lawn mower. (Id.)

The Indiana and Virginia Ryobi ride-on lawn tractors were model HDK19H42, Home Depot product SKU no. 425538, and sold for about $1,000.00. (Id.) The mowers were manufactured during 2005, and are model family 960160004, 9601600401, or 96016000402. (Id.) To this date, neither Home Depot nor Ryobi have notified the original buyers of the fuel line separation danger, nor of the existence of the replacement tank with the better securing connector outlet design. Attorneys Sullivan and Shapiro contended that Ryobi had a duty to warn Mr. Wright and all other buyers of this model mower. (Id. at ECF No. 165). The jury, by their $2.5 million verdict for the widow, agreed.

The trial lasted five days and Mr. Wright’s widow, daughters, son-in-law and neighbors provided moving testimony about the 67-year marriage that was snuffed out by Mr. Wright’s preventable, horrific death. (Id.) The federal jury in Norfolk, Virginia rejected the defense argument that the mower was safe as sold, and instead held Ryobi liable for their corporate negligence.

Contact Information for Plaintiff’s Lawyers:

Richard N. Shapiro & Patrick J. Austin
Shapiro, Appleton & Duffan
1294 Diamond Springs Road
Virginia Beach, Virginia 23455
Website: http://www.hsinjurylaw.com

Rob Sullivan
Sullivan Law, LLC
1600 Baltimore Avenue
Suite 200
Kansas City, Missouri 64108
Website: http://www.sullivantrial.com/

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