109: Lawnmower Man

Stella Case No. 109, Originally Published: 12 July 2006


EDITOR’S NOTE: If you really hate deathly tragedy, skip this one and go to the letters.

 

By any measure, it was a tragic accident. In April 2004, Orvil Reedy was mowing the lawn with a rider mower in front of his house in Daleville, Virginia. Reedy and his wife, Roberta, operated a day care facility from the house. One of their charges was Justin Simmons, 4. Roberta was watching the boy, and went into the house to change his younger brother’s diaper. She left Justin there, sitting on the lawn, unattended. Orvil kept mowing, heading up a slope.

The slope was too steep: the mower rolled backward and stalled. He tried to restart it, but then noticed two tiny legs sticking out from under the multi-bladed mower’s deck. He screamed.

Roberta came running, but it was too late: Justin was dead.

Is it outrageous for someone whose profession it is to care for small children to allow them to be anywhere near a machine that could easily kill them? You bet. Thus his parents, Ron and Kristie Simmons, sued, demanding $6 million for Justin’s wrongful death.

The Reedys had insurance: their insurance company apparently immediately offered the full amount of the policy, $100,000, as a settlement. It wasn’t enough; it probably wouldn’t be enough for most families whose child was killed in such a violent way due to apparent negligence of a day care provider.

Of course, the day care providers would never be able to pay $6 million, so someone else was added to the suit. Can you guess who? Take your time to try to figure it out.

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Since the Reedys only had $100,000 worth of insurance, and the Simmons family wanted $6 million, they also named the manufacturer of the lawnmower to the suit, MTD Products Corp. What did MTD have to do with the accident? The suit complained that there was no safety device to stop the mower’s blades from turning anytime the mower rolled backwards.

MTD’s current logo placed on a pleasant blue background.

Is such a safety device standard on other brands? No. In fact, no mower has such a safety device and, according to MTD’s attorney John Fitzpatrick, no device like that has ever even been tested. Further, such a device has never even been suggested by any safety agency, or anyone else, before the accident in question.

Still, the case went to trial against the Reedys and MTD in June 2006. In the trial, MTD’s attorney laid the blame on the Reedys. He pointed out that Orvil Reedy had not attempted to obtain an owner’s manual for the 16-year-old lawn mower, and had not paid any attention to the warning labels on the mower.

Amazingly, just before the case went to the jury for deliberation, the Simmonses dropped the Reedys from the suit. It is unclear whether they had accepted the original insurance settlement or not, but the jury only had to decide the case against MTD.

You, dear reader, are a member of the jury too — you’re a juror in the Court of Public Opinion. How would you rule in this case? You may throw it out, and even award damages to MTD. Or you may find for the Simmonses, awarding anywhere from $1 to the $6 million they asked for, or even more if you find MTD’s conduct to be “outrageous.” But you cannot order the Reedys to pay a cent: they were dropped from the suit.

OK, so how do you rule?

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The jury deliberated for just 10 hours before finding that MTD was at fault for not inventing a safety device that no one else has, or maybe has even thought of before this accident.

“We’re just hoping that we make a difference,” said Theresa Reed, who served on the seven-person jury in the case. “We just want the industry to see that there’s a problem that needs to be fixed.”

“The jury has spoken loud and clear,” said the Simmons’s lawyer, Brent Brown, after his triumph. “The protection of small children is one of the most important obligations of society.” He said the company was sued not to get rich, but to “get the attention” of the mower industry.

The jury awarded Ron Simmons and his wife Kristie $500,000 each, and Justin’s now-3-year-old brother, Josh, $1 million, for a total of $2 million.

“I find it incredulous that a jury no longer cares about common sense,” complained Fitzpatrick, MTD’s attorney. He promises an appeal of the “nonsense” verdict.

I’m sure not going to fault the parents for wanting some justice for their child, but that justice needs to come from a rational source. The mower didn’t have a safety device which didn’t exist when it was made in 1988. In fact, that safety device doesn’t exist now.

Worse, it’s not even clear that the safety device the plaintiff’s lawyer came up with after the fact, even if it was now invented, tested and installed on mowers, would have prevented Justin’s death. How could a company “reasonably foresee” such a thing?

What’s the real cause of this accident? The people hired to watch after Justin failed in their responsibility; the child was left unattended near dangerous machinery. Yet the people responsible for watching after him were let off the hook, and a company with deep pockets was made to pay for their failure, even though it could not have reasonably done a thing to prevent the accident.

Why is the intentional act of holding MTD responsible any less outrageous than the Reedys’ unintentional act?

Source

  • “Lawn Mower Company Liable in Boy’s Death”, Roanoke Times, 18 June 2006.

Case Status

Award made, as discussed above. The Simmons’s were runners-up for the 2006 Stella Award.

What of the promised appeal? That I found (the decision, that is). At least sort of: it wasn’t appealed per se, but rather MTD put forth a motion to the trial judge, Clifford Weckstein of the Circuit Court of Roanoke County, Virginia, to set aside the jury’s award. Weckstein summarized the questions  to be decided as follows.

MTD’s post-trial filings raise three questions:

  1. Whether the jury’s decision to allocate $1 million to Justin’s baby brother is insupportable, and thus shows that the verdict was based on prejudice or sympathy?
  2. Whether the court should now grant a mistrial motion that it took under advisement during the trial?
  3. Whether a verdict that MTD was legally responsible for Justin’s death must be set aside as contrary to the law and the evidence?

“Notwithstanding a prominent warning on the mower,” the judge said in his decision, after repeating that Orvil never read any of the warning labels on the mower, “he was unaware that it was missing a deflector guard, an important safety device.”

As for question #1 above, “Although neither party called it to my attention, the Supreme Court of Virginia has addressed this subject, saying this:”

The manner in which the damages are to be distributed is no concern of the defendant, and not under the control of the plaintiff [personal representative]. It is a question for the jury exclusively….

…which effectively moots the question. Still, Weckstein ruled, “A $2 million compensatory damage award for Justin Simmons’s wrongful death does not shock the conscience of the court; it is in no way disproportionate to the loss suffered.”

Question #2 addresses a motion that the judge deferred: “When the plaintiffs, as they had an absolute right to do, moved to nonsuit their claims against Mr. and Mrs. Reedy, MTD moved for a mistrial. This subject reflects no glory on court or counsel. I should have denied the motion as soon as it was made” because the plaintiffs do have an absolute right to dismiss a defendant from their suit, and “The parties have not called to my attention, nor have I discovered, any reported Virginia decision in which a defendant moved for, or was granted, a mistrial because the plaintiff nonsuited another defendant.”

For Question #3, Judge Weckstein quoted Article I, §11, of the Constitution of Virginia: “That in controversies respecting property, and in suits between man and man, trial by jury is preferable to any other, and ought to be held sacred.”

“Concomitantly,” he continued, “‘[t]he circuit court’s authority to set aside a jury verdict is limited and should be exercised ‘only if a jury verdict is plainly wrong or without credible evidence to support it.’”

“When asked to set aside a jury’s verdict, the trial court ‘as a preliminary to its interposition, must be satisfied that a clear and palpable error has been committed by the jury.’”

Such as? There’s that never-even-invented safety device. “In its memoranda and oral argument,” the judge confirmed, “MTD emphasizes, as it did before the jury, that no industry or government standards required (or even suggested) the sort of design that the plaintiffs contend was necessary and that, neither [when the mower was built] in 1988 nor by the time of trial have any other manufacturers implemented such a design for riding mowers of comparable size.”

“But it would be a rare court,” he continued after citing several other cases, “in an extraordinary case, that would accept ‘no one else does it’ as conclusively establishing lack of duty. ‘What usually is done,’ Justice Holmes wrote, more than a century ago, ‘may be evidence of what ought to be done, but what ought to be done is fixed by a standard of reasonable prudence, whether it usually is complied with or not.’”

“For the reasons set forth above,” which included other arguments not repeated here, “the court will enter judgment on the jury’s verdict in the amount of $2 million, with interest from the date of Justin Simmons’s death, and taxable costs. The judgment will be allocated in accordance with the verdict of the jury.”

And that “appeal” judgment was thus affirmed, on 29 February 2008.

So, knowing all of that, do you have further thoughts on your own judgment on the case?

Source: “Simmons v. MTD Products, Inc., 75 Va. Cir. 63”, 29 February 2008.

My 2022 Thoughts on the Case

Ohio’s MTD (originally Modern Tool and Die Company) still operates. Founded in 1932, it was a majority family-owned, private company until 1 December 2021, when it was bought out by Stanley Black & Decker. It owns the Bolens, Craftsman, Cub Cadet, Troy-Bilt, and Yard-Man brands.

The aspect of the case I think very important can’t really be part of the court case. That is the wholly insufficient insurance policy the Reedys had when operating a multi-child daycare. Really, $100,000 is peanuts, as they discovered. But the case was what it was, and it’s really the legislature that “should have” made a law that required much more insurance for daycares.

Letters

More on the Second Chances suit about the TV anchorman not being allowed to have a second job in broadcasting.

Mark in Virginia thinks that if the anchorman was answering a religious calling, “then he should do this ‘second job’ for free — then it is no longer an employment issue. If he cannot ignore the word of God and wants to get paid for spreading the word, then he should become a full time minister and quit his broadcasting job. If he just wants to spread the word then he should do it free as Jesus did. He just wants his cake and eat it to. He’s just substituted a new addiction for an old addiction which means he isn’t cured, he’s still an addict.”

Richard in Texas: “While I’m thrilled that Jesus Christ has given Mr. Turner a new life, it seems that God would be more honored by Mr. Turner honoring his contract. If he has a ‘call from God’ to do the radio broadcast, then he should quit his TV job; after all, God could easily support him. It seems like the honorable thing to do.”

Tom, a church pastor in Pennsylvania: “Frank Turner has taken a wrong turn in demanding that his employer submit to his desires. As a Christian whose employer has refused to release Mr. Turner from the terms of his contract, Mr. Turner has only two options. One option is to honor the contract by following its stipulations and setting aside his desire to expand his show to include daily appearances. His other Biblically sound option is to honor his contract by resigning his position with the station and so removing himself from under the authority of the station and the requirements of the contract. If he is in fact called to the daily radio show, this is the only course God is free to honor. Any other course will discredit Mr. Turner’s faith and bring dishonor to God.”

The federal agency Anchorman Turner appealed to was the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A multi-year TSA subscriber works for the EEOC at its Washington D.C. headquarters:

Robin writes: “While I don’t disagree that Mr. Turner’s case sounds quite frivolous, I wanted to respond to your comment referencing EEOC. There is no doubt that we receive numerous frivolous cases (just like a court of law), but a small difference is that we have a screening process for charges. Every complaint we receive is evaluated on its potential or probable merits before investigators are assigned to, well, investigate the complaint. IF the charge is perceived as having potential merit, then it can be mediated, if both parties agree, or it may be investigated. Even in circumstances where we find cause on a case, EEOC often does not litigate cases, but, rather, provides information about their investigation to the courts when or if the complainant chooses to sue.

Needless to say, a complainant can choose to sue regardless of whether or not the EEOC finds cause, and, in fact, many don’t wait for that decision to occur. They request a notice of right to sue and hop into court without an EEOC judgement — which takes the load off our plates. We don’t continue an investigation once the Notice of Right To Sue is provided, unless we perceive a particularly egregious violation. In any case, frivolous complaints still take the time of investigators and other staff who have to review the case in the first place.”

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9 Comments on “109: Lawnmower Man

  1. My own thought on this case is that the jury, if they wanted to truly make a lasting difference, could have required MTD to invest at least [insert dollar amount here] to develop such a safety device, and then to make such a device standard equipment on all of its mowers going forward.

    The Simmons’s suffered greatly, granted, but there’s a limit, and I feel sorry for MTD too.

    Reply
    • Could they have? A voluntary settlement could have required that, but I’m not sure a court could on their own, let alone a jury.

      I know that I’ve been *told* a jury would have no such authority. I was part of a mock jury hired (presumably by lawyers on one side or the other) at the time, and I don’t quite assume they were telling us the truth, but … the US legal system really does feature a lot of really bad incentives.

      Reply
  2. If MTD had to go out of business due to the law suit, I would hope that every employee who lost their job would file a suit against the Simmons family and name EVERY MEMBER of the JURY as a CO-DEFENDANT!!!

    Reply
  3. The Reedys are totally at fault; MTD is completely innocent.

    Why the heck was Mr. Reedy using a potentially deadly machine when the kids were outside? He should have been mowing when the day care was closed or at the end of the day after all the kids have been picked up.

    I know weather can determine when one can mow, so if the grass needed to be mowed during the day when kids were present, the kids should have been kept indoors. Or, at a bare minimum, an adult should have been outside to keep track of where the kids were and where Mr. Reedy on the lawnmower was — and made sure that everyone stayed safe.

    Mowers are, by design, dangerous — thus should only be used by responsible people. Mr. Reedy apparently was not responsible enough.

    Reply
  4. I find the logic in this “case” abhorrent. How any intelligent person, in this case a “judge” of all things, can conclude that a company is responsible for something that has never been thought of in the past much less invented and then punish the company with millions of dollars in assessments is way beyond my ability to comprehend.

    Reply
    • The *judge’s* reasoning sounds legally correct. I can’t defend the jury at all, nor will I defend the legislature/previous judges who created such a situation, but once the jury had ruled, it probably was too late. If the judge was going to put a thumb on the scale, that should have happened earlier, before a jury was called.

      Reply
  5. I find that the statement that such a device did not exist, even as late as 2008 to be untrue.

    I own a 2007 Cub Cadet lawn tractor, (which as your article states is a subsidiary of MTD, and any time I put the machine in reverse, the PTO automatically cuts off, thus stopping the blades from rotating, unless I turn the ignition key to “reverse disable” mode, in which case I would be liable for any damages or injuries caused by operating in reverse.

    There’s a significant difference between “put the machine in reverse [and] the PTO automatically cuts off” and a “safety device to stop the mower’s blades from turning anytime the mower rolled backwards” even if it is not in reverse, which is what happened in this case. -rc

    Reply
  6. Completely baffled. Growing up in a daycare, nobody was ever allowed outside when my dad was cutting the grass. I hope they lost their license. As a jury member, I’d say no fault of the company but then again, common sense is even harder to come by now days.

    Reply
  7. This is the kind of case that makes me glad I’m not actually a violent person, as it prevents me from acting on the temptation to give idiots who make decisions like these jurors did the punishment they so grievously deserve. This was an absolutely unacceptable decision by the jury and serves only to erode faith in our legal system.

    I will be honest… I’m not convinced the parents actually cared for their kid. This was just a cash grab and a jury full of idiots fell for it.

    Reply

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