An employee of a landscaping company had trouble operating a riding mower without it bucking. He knew the kill switch was not working, but used the machine anyway and he had illegal drugs in his system. When he was severely injured using the mower, he was responsible, right? Wrong.
The man was backing a riding mower up a hill when it started to bounce and threw him off his seat. When he fell, his foot slipped under the mower deck and the majority of his foot was severed. The kill switch that should have disengaged the blades malfunctioned.
His employer, a landscaping company, rented the riding mower on a long-term contract. They used the lawn mower for five weeks with no problems or complaints. The young man had operated the mower every day for three or four weeks without incident. He had complained to his employer in the beginning that the kill switch was not operational, but was told that there was “nothing that could be done about it” and that he should just be “extra careful” when operating the machine.
The employee had been cautioned many times about proper procedure and use of the hand controls. He had difficulty operating the mower and it would often buck wildly. His employer indicated that typically, once an employee can cut in a straight line, they are approved to operate the machine on commercial jobs, so as far as they were concerned, he was trained. When the injured man was taken to the hospital, it was discovered that he had elevated levels of cocaine in his system. His judgment and physical abilities would have been impaired. His employer should have been aware of his narcotics use as well.
The injured man was only 20 years old at the time of the accident. He will likely need adjustments to his prosthetic every one to two years and he has scarring on his thigh where skin was removed for a flap graft to his foot.
Fortunately, the injured man was able to walk after being fitted with a prosthesis. However, the rental store was liable for lack of proper maintenance on the mower.
The rental store had replaced the original factory seat with an aftermarket, suspension-type seat so as to provide a more cushioned ride. This affected the contact between the seat and the kill switch. The alternate seat had been installed several years prior and the rental store did not have the paperwork or instructions any longer, nor could they remember where they purchased it.
During the investigation, it was revealed that the switch was missing a rubber cover designed to keep it clean. With that not in place, dirt may have gotten inside and caused the plunger to stick. This could have been discovered during regular maintenance. Whether it was the missing cover or the replacement seat, the fact remained that the riding mower did not have a functioning kill switch.
While investigating the accident, the insurance company for the rental store hired an expert to inspect the mower. The rental store had already replaced the safety cutoff switch when they arrived for the examination. The original switch was tested and it was functioning, but there were spoliation of evidence issues. The machine should have been left “as is” until the investigation was complete. There was no way for the experts to verify the condition of the mower at the time of the accident.
The insurance company entered into mediation with the injured man and his lawyer. After much discussion, the insurance company paid a settlement worth six figures. This amount would have been much higher if the man and his employer didn’t share some of the responsibility for his injuries.
So, even though the injured man was not adept at operating the mower and had received repeated warnings, and even though he had illegal narcotics in his system, stated that he knew the kill switch was not operational and had used the mower for several weeks prior to being injured — the rental store still held some responsibility because they disabled the kill switch.
The ultimate argument was that those are the exact reasons kill switches are placed on equipment — to save people from stupid mistakes. If the kill switch had been operational at the time of the accident, the whole thing could have been prevented.