Suit: it’s the manufacturer’s fault that I backed a lawn mower over my son

by Ted Frank on June 30, 2008

The manual for the L120 John Deere mower reads:

DANGER: ROTATING BLADES CUT OFF ARMS AND LEGS

· Do not mow when children or others are around.

· Do not mow in reverse.

· Look down and behind before and while backing.

· Never carry children even with blades off.

It also warns:

Using The Reverse Implement Option (RIO)

!

CAUTION: Avoid injury! Rotating blades are dangerous. Children or bystanders may be injured by runover and rotating blades.

Before backing up, carefully check the area around the machine.

NOTE: Backing up while the mower is engaged is strongly discouraged. The Reverse Implement Option should be used only when operating another attachment or when the operator deems it necessary to reposition the machine with the mower engaged.

1. Stop forward travel.

2. Look behind the machine to be sure there are no bystanders.

Alas, on March 25, 2007, Corey Nicklin didn’t follow the instructions, his three-year-old son Conor Jack Nicklin was behind him, and the warnings came to pass, with fairly gruesome injuries to the boy’s left leg. This is, of course, as a lawsuit filed in St. Clair County court alleges, the fault of John Deere and Home Depot. (Ann Knef, “Home Depot, John Deere named in child’s lawn mower accident suit”, Madison County Record, Jun. 25). The suit alleges that “The subject lawn mower is defectively designed in that it should have been designed in a manner that does not allow for the mower to be operated with its blades moving in reverse.” In other words, because someone might not follow instructions, the rest of us should be deprived of a feature we might want to use. Too, the suit implausibly claims a failure to warn; perhaps the warning label should have specified “Your three-year-old son Conor” rather than just “children.”

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06.30.08 at 11:58 am

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1 William Nuesslein 06.30.08 at 8:48 am

Ted,

We had this exact kind of case before. I just looked at a picture of the John Deer mower. The blade has a cover. The edges of the cover hug the ground. How can any part of a child get under the cover going backwards or forwards? There must me more to these stories.

Various regulatory boards and committees are charged with defining responsible marketing of rider mowers. It defies common sense that a random sample of ordinary people can better design a mowers or anything else. Ordinary folks believe in UFO’s and miracles. For them rationality is outside their purview.

2 Ted Frank 06.30.08 at 8:53 am

I don’t find it hard to envision a riding mower having the power to ride up and over a small child, exposing him or her to the blades. Which is why parents and caretakers should keep children far away from riding mowers.

3 John Burgess 06.30.08 at 10:15 am

Not just riding mowers, of course… any mower, even the old-fashioned push mowers, can be dangerous. Long before the first power mowers, kids were losing fingers and toes, if not hands and feet, to those whirling blades.

Common sense (yea, I know) and ordinary prudence should alert a parent that kids don’t belong near sharp blades whirling around. Mowers or meat slicers… not good for kids.

4 Ro (Lilyhill) 06.30.08 at 10:20 am

It doesn’t seem to be whether or not the mower is engaged, it’s whether or not the driver’s common sense is. I’d never be anything but overly cautious if there was a child of any age near. Who was supposed to be watching him? Were they sued?

5 Justinian Lane 06.30.08 at 10:21 am

I would note that the suit alleges the lawnmower is designed in such a way that one cannot look behind oneself when mowing in reverse. If that’s true, it lends some credibility to the defective design claim; either way I think the failure to warn claim is a failure. Out of curiosity, why would someone need to mow in reverse? The only time I ever see someone going in reverse is after they’ve already cut a patch of grass.

6 William Nuesslein 06.30.08 at 11:04 am

Ted,

I envision a rear wheel (the mower was backing up) being lifted up by a child’s body. There is a space between the wheels and the mower cover, and the Wheel would go to the ground before the cover actually hits the child. One would expect that the concentrated weight on the child would, by itself, cause extensive internal injury or even death. Such injuries are not mentioned in these stories.

Absent some weird topology to the lawn, There iss no way the child would fit under the cover without the whells being raised.

John Burgess’ reference to walking motors is consistent with my point. The handle on walking motors is a natural lever to raise the blade cover off the ground. There is no natural lever for riding motors. A substantial upward force has to be applied to lift the mower and rider off the ground.

Every so often somebody cuts off some fingers, toes, or even a hand or foot with a lawn mover. But that is every so often with respect to millions of hours of use of lawn movers each year. But every so often (It seems to always be in New Jersey.) a hapless parent will run over a child in the driveway. I would bet that mowers, especially now that walking mowers have automatic engine cut offs, are very safe.

7 JB 06.30.08 at 11:19 am

Unexpectedly, the most common lawn mower injury is not fingers/toes/hands/feet getting caught in the blade. This is the second-most common injury.

The most common injury is being hit by an object thrown from a lawn mower. Another reason why young Conor should not have been in the vicinity of the mower.

(The third most common injury is burns caused by a hot mower engine.)

8 Bill Poser 06.30.08 at 11:55 am

The suit is indeed outrageous, but there is a silver-lining: perhaps such suits discourage the use of riding mowers. Riding mowers are a waste of fuel and material. Very few individuals need a riding mower. Those not in shape to push an ordinary mower around should hire the kid next door. He or she needs the money, and the cost will still almost certainly be less than that of buying and running the mower. And he is very unlikely to run over your kids.

9 Jim Collins 06.30.08 at 12:19 pm

Uhhh Bill. What happens when the kid next door hurts himself on his mower while cutting your lawn? Who gets sued? Get real.

10 OBQuiet 06.30.08 at 12:44 pm

Bill,

It would seem that those who buy riding mowers have a different view than you do. I think artichokes are a terribly inefficient food. Takes much too long to pluck it and there is so little that is really edible. How do I those banned?

Jim,

Obviously, the kid sues the manufacturer. Duh. They are the ones with the most MONEY! Obviously you never attended law school. Or at least you skipped the “Lawsuits For Fun And Profit” seminar.

11 JB 06.30.08 at 1:20 pm

Bill,

There are not many lawn mower deaths each year, but almost all of them are cases of cardiac arrest while pushing a lawn mower.

12 Bill Alexander 06.30.08 at 1:44 pm

Bill,

I have around 10 acres to mow. Yes, we have sheep and horses, but it still requires mowing to get the weeds they don’t like to eat. Also, the question of why anyone would want to mow in reverse- when the weeds are tall, they bend over under the deck, and only the top gets mowed. Often, once things dry enough to mow, it takes 3 passes to get them cut. Forward 20 feet, back 10, forward 20. The tractor mounted mower gets more of them, but it can’t get to places the rider does.

13 Jim Collins 06.30.08 at 2:12 pm

OBQuiet,
I was thinking more along the lines of the kid’s family and their lawyer including Bill and his homeowners insurance company as well as suing the manufacturer of the lawnmower. No I never attended law school, I was too busy taking engineering classes. I do have a working knowledge of liability issues though. I no longer repair aircraft and I have been involved with two liability lawsuits involving machinery that I helped design.

14 Joe Bingham 06.30.08 at 2:40 pm

This guy sets a record for stupid. I hate to point out that there’s some natural selection going on here–in addition to selecting genes that reproduce, nature selects genes that don’t stupidly kill the products of their reproduction. Like I said, I hate to point it out.

15 steve 06.30.08 at 2:49 pm

I worry about this every time I mow my lawn, back the car in/out of the garage and use any large equipment. I either have a direct line on MY child(unfortunately, I can’t watch all of the neighborhoods kids), or my wife or I watch while the other mows.

It’s sure is curious why the “defective design” reason is the answer to every case of somebody getting hurt using a product.

The design excuse is just that-an excuse.

I looked at the mower and cannot see where you wouldn’t be able to see in reverse. The fact that the RIO even exists is due to lawsuits. Now, Catch-22.

“Defendant John Deere failed to adequately warn of the dangers of mowing in reverse in that the label on the subject lawn mower that reads DO NOT MOW IN REVERSE is noncommonsensical and ineffective because the subject lawn mower allows for the operator to mow in reverse,” the complaint states.

Strange!? I thought common sense had no business in the law? Unless it helps your pocket book. Duh!

I use(use meaning when it does not break ;P) a 1971 Wheel Horse with no safety options. Not that that will spare the company a lawsuit if someone gets hurt.

16 Bill Poser 06.30.08 at 2:52 pm

(1) Some people need a tongue-in-cheek detector;
(2) I didn’t suggest a ban on riding mowers, just that they are overused; (3) I suggested that “few individuals” really need a riding mower. Bill Alexander makes a reasonable case for his use of one, but I maintain that he is atypical. Few people have 10 acres to mow; (4) With regard to deaths from heart attacks while mowing, I bet that the net benefit to health of the exercise people get from pushing a mower exceeds the marginal risk of heart attack. (5) With regard to Jim Collin’s concern over liability if the kid mowing your lawn hurts himself, well, the same kid if unemployed could fall while walking across your lawn and sue you. You’re at risk of being sued for pretty much anything. I doubt very much that the risk of this type of suit is great enough to deter a reasonable person.

17 Jim Collins 06.30.08 at 2:58 pm

There’s the kicker Bill. You said “reasonable person”, unfortunately there don’t seem to be many of them around, except perhaps on this forum.

18 Bill Poser 06.30.08 at 2:58 pm

In looking at a recent Ford catalogue, I learned that the Explorers (possibly other models but that’s what I was looking at) now have the option of a rear-looking sensor that warns you if something, such as a child or parked car, is too close. It sounds like a great option and isn’t terribly expensive (around $350). What I wonder is, now that these are available, will manufacturers be held liable for backing-up accidents if they don’t make these obligatory?

19 OBQuiet 06.30.08 at 3:29 pm

Jim,

Sorry if my humor was dropped in posting. I had been trying to joke that a REAL lawyer would know it isn’t about who’s at fault. Its about who can pay.

20 Ted 06.30.08 at 5:30 pm

@19: What I wonder is, now that these are available, will manufacturers be held liable for backing-up accidents if they don’t make these obligatory?

Bill, one saw a similar sequence in the sudden acceleration cases. Manufacturers started installing shift-interlocks to reduce the chances of sudden acceleration. In 1997, I represented an auto manufacturer in a sudden acceleration case where a little old lady had driven her auto into a crowd of 31 people or so; we expected the usual allegations of magical magnetic rays and stuck throttles (after all, that’s what the Nader groups were suggesting to the New York Times) when suddenly the plaintiffs admitted that the little old lady had hit the wrong pedal, but blamed the manufacturer for failure to warn and failure to retrofit the auto with a shift-interlock.

So, it is perhaps inevitable that trial lawyers will seek to blame a back-up injury on the failure to make the $350 rear-camera option mandatory.

21 Todd Rogers 06.30.08 at 8:49 pm

Was this mower in any way contributing to global warming…err, I mean climate change? Might also we have another claim? Was is a green mower? (Not like John Deere but like His Holiness Alfons Gore).

22 Jason Barney 07.01.08 at 10:17 am
23 Jim Collins 07.01.08 at 11:07 am

OBQuiet,
I got the humor in your statement and didn’t take offense. This is kind of a sore subject with me.

24 Alan Kellogg 07.01.08 at 11:43 am

To go along with the Darwin Awards I would like to propose the Wallace Awards, named after Russell Wallace, who worked out a theory of evolution via natural selection at the same time Charles Darwin did. The Wallace Awards to be awarded to the person who succeeded in remove his genes from the gene pool by eliminating his progeny through an act of stupidity.

Not just any act of stupidity, but an act of stupidity so blatant and so spectacular as to leave those who witness it, or hear of it, in no doubt that the perpetrator is no doubt too stupid to breed. Just letting Junior ride in the stern of your power boat wouldn’t cut it. Letting Junior ride in the stern of your power boat as he transfers gasoline from gas can to 2 liter soda bottle would.

The Russell Awards, for when a fellow’s idiocy means the end of his gene line at a remove.

25 Pat Hannon 07.01.08 at 7:31 pm

I was one of the original Cub Cadet dealers in the USA. My family owned a large International Harvester Dealership. Over the 35 years we operated the dealership we had a number of customers maimed, killed or hurt by equipment. Equipment is dangerous. That is a fact. Cub Cadet had a law suite some time in the 70′s that started the no cut in reverse mechanics. They also offered a way to over ride the feature. That was and is stupid. I was cutting my lawn with a 1250 cub cadet. I came to some bushes and had to back up. I used the over ride switch feature to keep the mower running and through it in reverse. My youngest son who was born in 1979 was walking behind me and I did not know it. I drove the tractor in reverse on top of him but because the tractor was not backing smoothly like it should I shoved the hydro to nuetral. I found my son under the tractor. The blades did not get to him, but a few inches…….
I am upset that there is an over ride on the no cut in reverse feature. That is just plain stupid. Also, the ability to lift the mower guards is stupid. Every mower I drive by has the shield held up by a tarp strap or they are even removed. STUPID
One of my customers was an eye surgeon. He blinded his daughter with a piece of wire thrown by his woods L59 mower under a cub lowboy. No law suit because he himself had turned the shield which was designed to be down to up. The shield was worthless.
Those of you who are ripping this man for the ACCIDENT he had need to grow up. As a person who has been in the equipment business for 55 years the builders of the equipment could do a much better job at safety.
In fact some of the rules and features standard in Europe are about to hit the farm equipment in the USA forced by the Feds. Brake laws on heavy equipment is one area I am familiar with. At present much of the heavy towed farm equipment in the USA do not have brakes on the equipment.
Welcome to America
I would be glad to share my experiences with anyone I can help related to these problems. I grew up around the equipment business starting in 1954 and am still working in it full time. I will list my email here. I am not sure if that is allowed but I am fired up about the postings I have read. Grow up.
pjhannon@csinet.net
La Porte, Indiana

26 Pat Hannon 07.01.08 at 7:51 pm

I would like to add to my post. I do not know how the Deere over-ride works.
I do know how the Cub Cadet over-ride worked. They may have improved it.
On the Cub Cadets I owned the switch on the left of the instrument pannel that turned the mower on was also the switch to over ride the no cut in reverse feature. You simply pulled the switch out about an 1/8 of an inch and pushed it up and the mower would continue to run while you went into reverse. I would be able to actuate that feature with no thought process, no thinking at all. I used it so often that it became part of my subconsious as I trimmed around trees, bushes etc.
I would compare it to mastering a 2 wheeled bicycle. There are lots of motions involved with riding the bycycle that no one thinks about. It becomes subconsious thought patterns that we can not explain, can not teach but can repeat every time we ride the bicycle. Over riding the back up feature becomes one of those sub consious acts. It is not that we were not warned. It is that we get so used to over-riding that it is not on the aware consious level. And kids are still getting cut up. THERE SHOULD BE NO OVERIDE.
Pat

27 nevins 07.01.08 at 8:34 pm

Pjhannon certainly has a lot of things he wishes to call stupid. But he neglects to blame the one who overrode the backup safety device then failed to notice his child behind him. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. But I’m not talking about the machine.

28 gitarcarver 07.01.08 at 10:26 pm

Those of you who are ripping this man for the ACCIDENT he had need to grow up.

The man is not being “ripped” for the accident he had. He is being ripped for trying to blame the accident on others. It was he who backed over his child – not John Deere. It was he who despite warnings to not mow while backing up, decided that he would not heed the warnings – not John Deere.

If you are in the power equiptment industry, you know well that the reason that people do not disengage the mower is that it is time consuming, and places greater wear and tear on the drive belts, pulleys, and bearings. In other words, people put the saving time and a few bucks over safety. The guy in the article, and apparantly you, want John Deere to to make the decisions that you and the man refuse to make. You want to blame them for allowing you to make intelligent choices when circumstances allow, and instead want them to make a decision for you in all circumstances.

Nevins’ comment is spot on.

29 steve 07.01.08 at 11:04 pm

RIO stands for reverse implement option, right?

Is it at all possible that there could be other things where you would want to use this option other than mowing?

The ONLY reason no one wants you to mow backwards is the fact that people do not actually clear the area BEFORE they even move. We all do it.

Almost all of the small lawn tractors move fast enough and turn tight enough that, if my son were walking behind me while going forward and I turned a tight circle, I could EASILY be in a position to run him over before I know it.

I absolutely do not blame or ridicule only this guy for this happening. I will forever blame and ridicule the lawyers, and, to a much smaller extent, people like this, for bringing suit. There will always be people, and you know who you are, who wil always sue. they’ll justify it with the the argument that “you never know, there could be something dangerous about it.” Of course there something dangerous about it! That’s why you must take care!

That’s life! Take a little more time when mowing and pay more attention!

They really need to add an option where a guy just sits there and WHACKS you in the back of your head each time you do it wrong, and then you’ll learn.

We need to bring back stick shifts only and teach people to be able to do more than just hold on when driving/moving/operating anything.

How many people out there with older tractors turn off the blades when getting off to move something while mowing? I do. EVERY time! Parking brake and neutral too. For some people, doing it right is just too inconvenient. Better to just cut corners and blame someone else later.

For the record, I really think that the lawyers and courts are the enablers of this type of folly. I could just as easily be swayed to sue in my grief. Especially if I did this to my own child.

Well, we all pay more for things because of it. Just look at the small, private plane industry-or what’s left of it. My dad actually thought about buying a Beachcraft Bonanza. It took 3 years to find one that he liked-very picky-and, by then, the price had gone form $75,000 to almost $300,000! Is that what you really want for ALL the things we buy?

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