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Spinning Blades, Broken Bodies and Danger by Design

(Robin Muccari/NBC News)

Jeremy Westfall was cutting the grass last month at his home in Mineralwells, West Virginia, when he decided to put his riding mower in reverse. He didn’t see his 6-year-old daughter Michaela walking up behind him, and backed over her.

When emergency personnel arrived, a sheriff’s report said, they found that the child’s toes had been cut off, and that a piece of her foot was under the mower.

FairWarning has identified 133 cases of young children being injured by backovers of riding mowers since 2004. Although human error is an obvious factor, another is a conscious choice by some mower manufacturers to design their machines so they can mow in reverse, despite mounting evidence that this jeopardizes small children, an investigation by FairWarning has found.

Of the cases found through court records, news and injury reports and interviews, eight of the victims were killed. Others suffered amputations of fingers, toes, hands, feet, and limbs; and mangled and ripped internal organs, genitals and bones.

“That’s an extremely alarming number,” said Elliot Kaye of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, one of the five commissioners who set policies and rules.

Tate Manahl, 3, hospitalized after a backover accident in Iowa in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Manahl).

FairWarning’s list of injuries is almost certainly an undercount. A study published in 2017 in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine estimated there were 1,641 backover injuries in the United States from 1990 to 2014 — roughly 65 per year. Seventy percent of the victims were under the age of 5.

In 2003, in response to the rising toll of these accidents, the mower industry adopted a voluntary standard for riding mowers. It requires the blades to stop spinning when the mower moves in reverse, but permits manufacturers to include buttons or switches to override this safety feature. Many manufacturers have done so, and the accidents have continued.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission implemented a mandatory standard for walk-behind power mowers in the early 1980s, but excluded riding mowers from the rule. Kaye said the issue of backover injuries has not been on the commission’s radar since he joined it in 2010. “The agency should take a hard look at it and take some action, if necessary,” he said.

But there are no immediate plans to do so. The issue of backover injuries is not mentioned in the commission’s operating plan listing priorities for 2019.

In a statement, the agency’s acting chairman, Ann Marie Buerkle, urged consumers who use riding  mowers “to protect their kids by always keeping them out of the mowing area … When it is absolutely necessary to operate the mower in reverse, always look behind you, as well as on the ground before and while backing up.”

FairWarning reached out to the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, a trade group, and several manufacturers, but none agreed to interviews.

Adding to the trauma

In almost every case, the operator of the mower is a parent or close family member, compounding the trauma of the accident.

“That night when we were in the hospital … I couldn’t sleep because when I closed my eyes, all I could see was his eyes looking into my eyes,” Ryan Manahl, of Cedar Falls, Iowa, said in an interview, describing the day he backed over his 3-year-old son, Tate. Since the August 2017 accident, Tate has endured more than 30 surgeries to repair severe injuries to his legs and internal organs.

Christina Kennedy said that since the death of her 8-year-old brother, Shane, in a backover accident in Alabama in 2010, her parents “struggle every day just to function.” Adding to the family’s misery were the cruel comments posted online about her brother’s death.

“I saw many sites that I wished I hadn’t, speaking horribly about the accident,” she said in an email. “Some of the people didn’t go as far as blaming my father for not paying attention, but it’s easy to say those things if you weren’t there.”

Isabelle Norton at age 5. She was 2 when she lost her left leg in a backover accident in Oregon. (Photo from trial exhibit in court case against Deere & Co.)

Isabelle Norton was 2 when her leg was amputated in a backover accident at her home in Springfield, Oregon, in 2006. As her father, Kirk Norton, was backing up the mower, he saw his nephew waving frantically. By the time he realized what had happened, it was too late, court records show.

The mower’s blades, spinning at 190 mph, did terrible damage to Isabelle’s tiny body. A sheriff’s deputy who responded to the accident said there were “too many pieces of flesh and bone” scattered across the yard to describe in his report. He found Isabelle’s left foot near the mower and, 20 feet away, three of her toes.

The accident happened in 2006, but lawyers for the child are still locked in a marathon legal battle with mower manufacturer Deere & Co, the giant producer of construction, farm and garden equipment.  A state court jury in 2009 absolved Deere of liability, but an appeals court remanded the case for a new trial.

Last year, a jury found that the mower was defectively designed and awarded Isabelle  $12.25 million, holding Deere 78 percent responsible for the damages. The jury put the rest of the blame on her father, who is serving a 17-year sentence in state prison after being convicted in 2011 of sexual abuse in an unrelated case. Both Deere and Kirk Norton have appealed, which could add several years to the litigation.  Deere officials and Kirk Norton’s lawyer did not respond to interview requests.

“Well engineered, well designed”

During the March 2018 trial, lawyers for Deere defended the mower’s design. It was “well engineered, well designed, and well built,” and Isabelle’s father was to blame for her injuries, a Deere lawyer said in court. “Someone backs over somebody and is not taking any responsibility for that.”

But Isabelle’s lawyer, Don Corson, argued that Deere — whose iconic green-yellow mowers and tractors are found in millions of garages and yards — was ignoring a product defect that continues to kill and maim children.

“The manufacturer in this case knew about these problems for decades,” Corson said, according to a court transcript. “They knew there was a large number of serious lawn mower backover injuries, and they knew that they were particularly happening to young children, and they knew about the human limitations when backing up.”

Corson cited internal memos from Deere that showed how the company experimented with backover safety systems in the 1980s and the early 2000s.  The company introduced the “no mow in reverse” design, which allowed users the option of overriding the safety feature, in the late 1990s. That design became the industry standard several years later. Nathan Hemming, a product safety engineer at Deere, acknowledged in testimony at the trial that the company never evaluated whether the system reduced accidents.

Isabelle, now 15, has been left with chronic health problems in addition to the loss of her left leg, according to court records.

“This kid goes to bed in pain every night,” Sandra McCoy, Isabelle’s aunt, said in testimony at the 2018 trial. “Sometimes she wakes up in the middle of the night and you can hear her crutches going through the house to the microwave to heat up her rice pack. She doesn’t like to wake people up to tell them that she’s in pain.”

A concession to consumers 

According to representatives of lawn mower companies, the override that allows mowing in reverse is a concession to consumers who want flexibility when they mow. But family members of injured children and safety advocates say the override results in manufacturers having it both ways as they try to shield themselves from lawsuits — slapping warnings in their operator manuals and on their websites to not mow in reverse, but enabling operators to do it.

Wyatt Cruse was 4 when he suffered leg injuries and loss of a toe in a backover accident in Illinois. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Heim).

Even with the override, critics say, manufacturers could reduce the risk by placing the button behind operators so they would have to look behind to engage it, allowing them to see if there’s a child nearby.

The study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine identified this as a serious flaw.  “Operators are able to reengage the mower blades while traveling in reverse without ever looking behind them, which negates the safety purpose of the mechanism,” the study said, referring to the “no mow in reverse” design.

Kaye, the Consumer Product Safety Commission commissioner, said it appears to be a case in which letting an “industry police itself is failing to protect consumers.” He added that “in almost every case” of companies claiming that an override feature “is demanded by consumers and would otherwise make the product not usable or salable … that turns out to be nonsense.”

MTD Products — a major power equipment maker based in Valley City, Ohio — said in an email that the override feature doesn’t pose a threat to users.

“Providing the operator a conscious choice to temporarily maintain power to the implement can help to improve utility and shorten mowing time, without compromising safety,” an MTD spokeswoman wrote.

Deere has used similar language in arguing that accidents happen because of operator error, saying the operator makes a conscious decision to use an override every time he or she backs up.

“Industry has figured that blaming the user is a hell of a lot easier than spending the money to do it right,” said Sean Kane, president of the consulting firm Safety Research & Strategies Inc. “If there was a real desire by the industry to see this go away, it could have easily gone away.”

In 1982, MTD introduced mowers that did not cut in reverse and had no override. For the next two decades, the company boasted, it didn’t have a single backover accident.

Writing to a news organization in 2001, an MTD executive said that the company’s co-founder, Theo Moll, “believed that protecting children was more important than the loss in sales due to customer resistance.”

But evidently, MTD saw itself losing out to competitors who were installing overrides. In 2005 — once the voluntary standard was in effect — MTD began to do the same.

An MTD spokeswoman said in an email that the company made the change to satisfy customers with “differing mowing demands.”

She added that the company has seen “no discernible increase” in accidents since 2005, but noted that MTD “does not know how many such accidents occur.”

Consumed by guilt

Adults who back over children are deeply conscious of their terrible mistake.  In interviews with FairWarning, parents spoke of the tremendous sense of guilt and personal responsibility.

 But families are also angry at the industry for failing to offer safer designs.

“We can’t lock our kids in kennels while we mow the lawn,” Jennifer Heim said. In 2015, her son Wyatt, then 4, lost a toe and suffered serious leg injuries when his grandfather backed over him with a riding mower in East Dubuque, Illinois. Heim said she had warned Wyatt about lawn mowers many times. But it’s difficult to communicate the risks of amputation to a child.

John Brooks with Ireland Nugent, who lost both her legs in a lawnmower backover accident in Florida in 2013. (Photo courtesy of John Brooks).

“There has to be some kind of give and take from manufacturers,” she said.

John Brooks, a building and safety inspector who lives in Orlando, Florida, has become a crusader on the issue.

Brooks became aware of backover accidents when Ireland Nugent, 2, lost both her legs  in a backover in Florida in 2013.

Horrified, Brooks assumed the manufacturer would do something following a flurry of media reports, but nothing happened. Soon after, Brooks learned of three more mower accidents in Florida.

“If a guy like me can see this is terrible, I’d hope a manufacturer would say the same thing to themselves and ask, ‘How can we reduce this?'” Brooks said.

Brooks formed an online community of hundreds of families affected by lawn mower accidents. With a few other  members he helps raise funds to pay their medical bills. Last year, he conducted an informal survey of his Facebook group for Isabelle Norton’s lawyer.

Brooks has little faith that companies will take action, so he’s developing an aftermarket device designed to shut down mowers when children approach.

“Some of the first people I want to give my device to are the people who were injured,” Brooks said. “I want their kids to feel like it’s impossible for that equipment to harm them again.”

Richard Gill, an engineer who testified as a plaintiff’s expert in Isabelle Norton’s case, noted that as far back as the 1960s, backovers were known to be a severe hazard — one that manufacturers  had a moral obligation to address.

“Here we are 50 some years later — nothing has changed,” Gill said.

Eli Wolfe can be reached at email hidden; JavaScript is required