Risky Business: Spring cleaning

An older couple owned a second home in another city. They visited the home often, especially when the temperatures turned hot in their hometown. During one particular visit, they decided to clean the exterior of the house with a power washer. Together they went to town and stopped at the rental store they had gone to for many years.

The young man behind the counter completed the paperwork, had them sign the contract and asked for directions to their home. The power washer was out on rent and due back that afternoon. The rental store employee agreed to deliver the machine to their home in the morning.

The older gentleman was not strong enough to push/pull the power washer all around his property, so he asked the rental store employee to put the power washer in the back of his pickup so he could drive around his house and clean his walls.

The husband and wife spent the better part of the day going around the single-story house cleaning. Finished for the day, the wife was heading indoors when she heard a “pop.” She turned around to see her husband on the back of the truck bed, in flames. She told him to get down and instinctively rolled him on the ground to diminish the flames.

Her neighbor heard the commotion and called 911 after looking out the window to see the truck on fire. When 911 did not respond quickly enough, the elderly woman loaded her husband into their car and drove him to the hospital. They met the ambulance on the way and the man was transferred to the ambulance and taken to the emergency room. Once there, he was stabilized and transported via airlift to another hospital with an extensive burn unit. The man had second degree burns on 29 percent of his body, chiefly centered on his arms, hands and legs.

The man’s wife called the rental store and advised them that the power washer exploded and she apologized for the damage. The rental store owner contacted his insurance company right away and turned in a claim. The claim adjuster told the rental store owner to retrieve the power washer from the customer’s home, but not do anything to it. The machine was recovered by rental store employees about 10 ft. behind the truck. It was isolated until it could be examined by an expert.

An engineer examined the power washer and determined there was no external evidence of mechanical failure. The fuel cap was not found on the tank and the level of soot on the cap opening indicated that it could have been off during the fire. The engineer also visited the site of the fire and could see the fire pattern surrounded the location where the power washer was recovered. At least some portion of the burning of the power washer occurred while the washer was laying in the yard. The damage on the pickup truck indicated that the fire was from the rear, as the hood of the truck was not burned at all.

The operator’s manual for the power washer instructs the user to read the manual and follow all safety rules and operating instructions before use. Warnings include only operating the power washer on a stable surface. In the back of a pickup truck, driving around a residence is not considered a stable situation. The counter employee asked the man if he was familiar with operating a power washer. The man indicated that he was and nothing further was discussed.

The man had no memory of the accident and his wife was walking towards the house with her back to him prior to the fire starting, so neither of them truly knew what happened. During the investigation of the accident, it was determined the fire likely started as the unit was being refueled. The owner’s manual warned against adding fuel to a hot machine.

The rental store’s contract included a section indicating “in the event of any accident resulting in property damage or bodily injury arising from the use of the equipment while it is in renter’s possession, renter hereby expressly agrees to assume responsibility for himself.” The section had been initialed by the renter and the contract was signed.

The man knew how to use the power washer, so he was aware that it should only be operated on a stable surface and that it should not be refueled when hot. These things, together with the contract wording, may have been why he decided not to pursue a claim.

Mary Ann Gormly, CERP, is risk management coordinator for ARA Insurance, Kansas City, Mo. For more information, call 800-821-6580 or visit ARAinsure.com.