In a decision that could easily find its way into torts textbooks on foreseeable misuse, a Virginia court has upheld a $2 million judgment against lawn mower manufacturer, MTD in the death of 4-year-old Justin Simmons, who was run over by a machine.
Justin was killed when he was at a Daleville day care center operated by Orvil and Roberta Reedy at their home. On April 22, 2004, Justin was playing in the yard while Orvil mowed the lawn. As he was mowing on a slope, the mower rolled back over Justin. The Reedy’s were originally sued but were dropped at the last minute in an act that MTD counsel alleged was a conspiracy with the Simmons to set up the company as the fall guy.
The Simmons argued that the lawn mover was defective in its design that allowed the blades to continue to turn while in neutral or rolling back. MTD argued that Orvil Reedy was clearly misusing the mower and that the 1988 model had extensively salvaged and refurbished. It is a substantial alteration defense pitted against a foreseeable misuse claim and the latter prevailed.
A manufacturer is liable for the foreseeable misuse of their products, including its use for unapproved purposes or even foreseeable alterations. The judge upheld the $2 million verdict as supported by the facts. As a jury decision, it is difficult to overturn such a factual finding. Even in the conservative Virginia courts, an appeal would have a low likelihood of success given the factual finding and the court’s careful explanation of why the evidence supported the judgment.
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