$2.5 Million Virginia Jury Verdict in Defective Ryobi Riding Lawn Mower Wrongful Death Case Upheld by Federal Appeals Court

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The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a $2.5 million jury verdict awarded to the family of a man who was burned alive by a defective Ryobi ride-on lawn mower, according to Shapiro, Appleton & Duffan, the firm representing the plaintiff.

Picture of Frank S. Wright and the Defective Ryobi Ride-on Lawn Mower

The affirmance is a victory not only for the Wright family, but for consumers of all products who are entitled to be notified when a manufacturer or distributor becomes aware of a deadly or dangerous product defect.

In a unanimous opinion dated November 23, 2016, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a $2.5 million defective product jury verdict entered in favor of a Chesapeake, Virginia family that lost a loved one in an incident involving a defective ride-on Ryobi lawn mower. See Bilenky v. Ryobi Technologies, Inc., et al., Case No. 15-1753, (4th Cir. November 23, 2016), Doc 55, at pg. 13. The victim, an 88-year-old man named Frank Wright, was survived by his widow, two daughters and his grandchildren. See Bilenky v. Ryobi Ltd. et al, Case No. 2:2013cv00345, ECF No. 206 at pg. 2 (E.D. Va. 2015).

Wright’s product defect lawyers, Richard N. Shapiro (Virginia Beach, VA) and Rob Sullivan (Kansas City, MO) argued that the Ryobi mowers had a defective fuel line connection that could spill gas onto the mower deck, which seller Ryobi and its contract manufacturer, Husqvarna, were aware of years before Wright’s death. See Bilenky v. Ryobi Ltd. et al, Case No. 2:2013cv00345, ECF No. 206 at pgs. 3-4 (E.D. Va. 2015).

Wright’s lawyers discovered that Ryobi and its contract manufacturer became aware of other similar ride-on mower gas-fed fires before Wright was killed, but never issued a recall or notified consumers like Mr. Wright. See Bilenky v. Ryobi Ltd. et al, Case No. 2:2013cv00345, ECF No. 206 at pgs. 5-6 (E.D. Va. 2015).

During more than a year of pretrial discovery, Ryobi repeatedly denied that it was aware of any other similar lawn mower fires occurring prior to Mr. Wright’s tragic, preventable death in 2010. However, a similar Ryobi mower fire occurred prior to the deadly mower fire that claimed the life of Mr. Wright. See Bilenky v. Ryobi Ltd. et al, Case No. 2:2013cv00345, ECF No. 206 at pgs. 5-6 (E.D. Va. 2015).

After a five-day trial, a Norfolk, Virginia federal court jury returned a $2.5 million verdict in favor of Mr. Wright’s widow finding that Ryobi was negligent. See U.S. District Court Case No. 2:13-cv-00345, at ECF No. 165. Ryobi appealed this jury verdict to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Richmond, Virginia. The company challenged the pre-trial sanction that its engineer expert was properly stricken as a witness after providing false testimony, challenged its product was defective, and even contested the Wright Estate could sue Ryobi, arguing it was a “brand” and not really a manufacturer or seller of the mower. See Bilenky v. Ryobi Technologies, Inc., et al. Case No. 15-1753, Doc No. 55 at pg. 9.

On appeal Ryobi claimed that despite its name emblazoned on the ride-on mower, its name featured in the owner's manual, and its name appearing on Mr. Wright's receipt of purchase, it should not be held responsible as a distributor or seller for the defective ride-on mower. The federal appeals court rejected each of Ryobi’s challenges, and the Fourth Circuit re-affirmed a longstanding legal principle called the apparent manufacturer doctrine. See Bilenky v. Ryobi Technologies, Inc., et al. Case No. 15-1753 at Doc No. 55, pg. 9.

Under the apparent manufacturer doctrine, any company holding itself out as the “apparent” manufacturer to the public, may be subject to the same liability as the actual manufacturer. The Fourth Circuit established this well-established legal doctrine in a 1936 case, Swift & Co. v. Blackwell, 84 F.2d 130, 132 (4th Cir. 1936). Basically, if a company puts its name on a product, is under a "duty to exercise care" when it comes to the public safety of that product, even if the company actually uses a separate contract manufacturer that is not listed on the product. The Court of Appeals concluded its decision by unequivocally affirming the $2.5 million jury verdict in favor of the Wright estate declaring that it was content to affirm the judgment based on the cogent reasoning spelled out by the district court. See Bilenky v. Ryobi Technologies, Inc., et al. Case No. 15-1753, Doc. 55 at pgs. 12-13 (4th Cir. November 23, 2016).

The affirmance is a victory not only for the Wright family, but for consumers of all products who are entitled to be notified when a manufacturer or distributor becomes aware of a deadly or dangerous product defect, and who look to the company named on the product and instruction manual as a responsible company if their product has a dangerous defect that should have been corrected before a serious injury occurs.

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Richard N. Shapiro
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