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Segway shop balances multiple lawsuits

Michael Schwartz May 18, 2011 20

The next stop on a Segway tour of Richmond might be the city courthouse.

A Shockoe Slip Segway dealer has been sued three times since January – including twice in the past few weeks – by customers who claim that they were injured while riding the unorthodox vehicles on tours of Richmond.

Buck Ward, the owner of Segway of Richmond, said his company has liability insurance to help protect against claims and lawsuits, but that coverage doesn’t come cheap.

“It is both difficult to get and very expensive for a small business like ours,” he said in an email to BizSense.

And regardless of the outcome, fighting three suits at once is a major headache.

“It is very difficult and very expensive,” Ward said.

The suits, all of which were filed in Richmond Circuit Court, describe alleged instances of the Segways lunging or lurching despite the riders’ attempts to control them. The incidents, which all occurred in 2009, resulted in alleged injuries and related hardships to the tune of a combined $6 million.

Plaintiffs Jenny Honeycutt, Jeffury Whitt and Marge Pritchett each say that Segway of Richmond was negligent and reckless for allegedly not training the riders on how to handle the vehicles under certain conditions.

Each of the plaintiffs is also suing Segway Inc., the New Hampshire-based manufacturer of the vehicles.

The suits hinge on a common allegation that there are inherent, known glitches in the vehicles that can cause accidents.

“As Segway manufactured more and more product units, it amassed a database of accidents and incidents related specifically to software and battery malfunctions,” the suit filed by Jenny Honeycutt claims.

“Segway nonetheless continued to manufacture product units with little or no changes to either the vehicle software or battery specifications that would enhance a rider’s ability to control the Segway and would prevent abrupt and unexpected starts and stops.”

The suits contain similar language.

Honeycutt is represented by Thomas Stokes of Brenner, Evans and Millman

The other two plaintiffs are represented by James Thorsen of Marchant, Thorsen, Honey, Baldwin and Meyer.

Mike Ward, an attorney with Morris & Morris who is representing Segway Inc., would not comment on the suits.

Buck Ward said he couldn’t comment on the specific cases.  But Ward, who responded only to emails, said safety is a priority.

“There is nothing more important to Segway of Richmond and its employees than our customers’ safety,” he said.

Since Ward opened Segway of Richmond in 2008, the company has given tours to more than 12,000 people without any injury or incident, he said.

“Over the past three years since opening, we have had solid, substantial growth year over year which we think reflects the care and attention our company and our guides place on our customers’ safety and in creating a fun and memorable experience,” Ward said.

Ward said customers who ride the gyroscopic vehicles sign waivers and releases of liability and are required to wear helmets. He also said riders are given the chance to ask questions about using the vehicles and about the risk of potential injury.

The suits, however, question the shop’s pre-ride regimen. Honeycutt’s suit claims the session did not include specific training for riding on “different texture surfaces, or going up or going down hills, ramps or inclines or for maneuvers in case of an emergency or malfunction.”

Segway Inc. and Segway of Richmond have denied the allegations in the Pritchett case, the oldest of three suits. They have not responded to the others.

Michael Schwartz is a BizSense reporter. Please send news tips to Michael@richmondbizsense.com.

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20 Comments »

  1. Blackbeered May 18, 2011 at 7:19 am - Reply

    What should happen when stupid people ruin it for smart people?

    The evolution of mankind requires that we not “dumb down” … but we’re seeing it all the time. Maybe we shouldn’t blame the lawyers … they’ve been given a meal ticket by legislators.

  2. Ethan May 18, 2011 at 8:49 am - Reply

    If the injuries that these people sustained were so serious (to warrant a $2MM claim on average), why did they wait almost two years before filing suit? Could it be that the statute of limitations for filing civil claims was about to expire…..?

    When you look at the Docket on this website, you notice a common element. An alarming majority of the accidents or injuries occured 20 – 23 months ago.

  3. Bobby whitten May 18, 2011 at 9:01 am - Reply

    just shows that a waiver is just a piece of paper!

  4. Phil Riggan May 18, 2011 at 10:05 am - Reply

    I’ve never taken the Segway Tours, but I’ve witnessed people enjoying them many times. I love the concept and applaud any business that tries to highlight Richmond. I agree, the timing comes off as more of a money grab. It would be a shame if the business goes under because of the greed of a few opportunists.

  5. AH May 18, 2011 at 10:10 am - Reply

    Steps to resolution:
    - Determine the facts of the matter as objectively as possible.
    - If negligent, then simply compute the actual time out of work for the injured parties,
    - add to that the cost of any out of pocket medical costs they incurred,
    - sum the total and pay out.

    It strikes me as categorically outrageous that individuals who willingly decided to engage in a risky activity on public streets and sidewalks would think that monetary compensation is due to them in the first place. Segway should countersue the customers for being negligent in reading the contract they signed.

  6. Troy Bell May 18, 2011 at 11:41 am - Reply

    About 20 months ago, I enjoyed a Segway tour in Richmond with my wife and daughter and found the guide to be very thorough with the pre-tour safety instructions and familiarization training, and just as careful throughout the tour. We had a blast, hope to do a different tour route sometime soon.

  7. Tim Edwards May 18, 2011 at 12:01 pm - Reply

    Segway is not for everybody. Neither is SCUBA, horseback riding or skydiving. My experience with Segway Richmond was fantastic. The training, practice, and muti-surface and slope talk, was adequate. We were asked many times prior to the start of the tour, if we were comfortable and safe. One person bailed-out after the practice and got a full refund. The rest of us finished the tour without incident.

    I had a great time and will do it again. The guides were terrific and helpful. The ‘injured’ should lick their wounds and stay off Segways. Don’t try to milk the insurance company and destroy the business that offers adventure and pleasure to so many. Figure out if you, at any point during the training and practice, had trepedation or doubt in your confidence to complete the tour without a fall. I believe somewhere during that period when everyone is offered an out and a full refund, you failed to follow your intuition and say no. Maybe your friends convinced you otherwise. You knew within 5 minutes of being on that vehicle if you were up for it or not.

    Don’t blame others for your own poor judgement.

  8. Alan Wilson May 18, 2011 at 1:43 pm - Reply

    The most unfortunate part if this story is how non-surprising it is. This is what our country has become, a land of mysterious injuries and emotional scars that can only be healed by an ambulance-chaser waving a winning lottery ticket. Now the liability insurance for these businesses is going to skyrocket, and who do you think that gets passed on to? The next Segway buyer or RIC tour taker. Truly a shame.. as well as a sham!

  9. Kevin Anderson May 18, 2011 at 1:50 pm - Reply

    There is really no way for the plaintiffs to come out of this and not look like complete idiots. If you were so mis-trained as to actually fall off the thing, chances are you couldn’t have been going very fast to begin with. Even if the judge rules in your favor, how good do you feel about yourself having bilked $6 million out of a local business? (I guess technically the insurance company but still, dealing with court cases takes time and money).

  10. Steven Brown May 18, 2011 at 3:42 pm - Reply

    Buck,
    Counter sue for fraud and defamation for twice what the amount! FIGHT, don’t give in!

  11. Bob Kerns May 19, 2011 at 1:54 am - Reply

    I have over 4000 miles on my own Segway, as a mobility aid for my disability.

    I trained my own mother. She’s now 79, and has owned her own Segway for a couple of years, and also uses it as a mobility aid.

    I have never seen a Segway unexpectedly start or stop. Here are the ways I’ve found to fall. Yes, in over 4000 miles and 3 years, this is a complete list of my falls — and three of them were from deliberately pushing the limits, and only 3 of them were “Segway accidents”, as opposed to experiments, or in one case, an external event.

    * Running into something. A doorway (a narrow one, with a very heavily sprung door to distract me — this got me twice), or a very deep rut.

    * Loss of traction. My first encounter with this was when I was specifically testing the climbing limits, on a dusty off-road trail. The surprising thing was — I got half-way up first. Then, when I tried to stand — I slid down that hill on my hands and knees. The Segway did better than I could on hands and knees. I’ve also fallen trying to climb a steep grade on wet snow at a ski resort — also a test of the limits.

    * Falling off. This is hard to do. I once managed it by combining it with loss of traction on one wheel (on wet grass and mud), leading to a small delay in a sharp turn I tried to make. I’ve been knocked off balance by unexpected bumps other times, but the Segway maneuvers to stay under you.

    * Having a bicyclist fall on you. Yup. A large bicyclist stopped with his family to catch their breath. He then got his feet tangled up in his clipless pedals, lost his balance, and fell over just as I passed, knocking me down an embankment toward a canal. I hit the dirt to avoid the water. Neither of us were injured. (Unlike bicycles, Segways are nicely stable when stopped!)

    * Finally, on YouTube, I’ve observed two other ways to fall. Be drunk, and be an idiot. These are usually combined.

    Different surface textures? Slopes? Even steep hills? The Segway handles all of these fine. But I do think they should be part of the training — because riders panic.

    I myself approached these things with some caution until I learned how the unit behaves. What I found was that I had to learn to trust the Segway to do its job — stay balanced underneath me. That actually turns out to be a learning process, although not a difficult one. Most of it happens in the first 90 seconds, but things like “it’s not going to fall over backwards when going down a steep ramp” take a little longer.

    I don’t know the merits of the case against Segway of Richmond, so I won’t judge the specific plaintiffs or their motives. Training is important. But as others have noted, the trainee has responsibilities as well. To pay attention. To verify that they actually understand what they’ve been taught. To not panic.

    We don’t train people before renting them bicycles. And bicycles are much harder to use, and more dangerous, than a Segway. They’re faster, don’t stop as fast, can’t turn as quickly, fall over when stopped, and can easily fall if they hit a rut or a pothole that wouldn’t phase a Segway. But somehow people think about bicycle risks differently, and assign the responsibility to the rider, rather than the inherent instability of the bicycle.

    Ironically, it’s because a Segway is designed to be safer than a bike, that if it turns out to not be 100% safe in the hands of a beginner, people think “blame the Segway”.

    But ultimately, training is a learning process. Every time I teach someone the basics, I am surprised by a new response to my training. Some people ignore my instructions and go charging off before I’m ready for them to do so. (Once I was even slightly concerned the intent might be to steal it!) Others, I have to coax to push a little more and take the next confidence-building step. Nobody has ever fallen — but I haven’t trained nearly as many people nor given them the freedom of a tour.

    Finally, I note all of the support expressed here for Segway of Richmond. I’m used to seeing comments on any article about Segways at all, with a lot of uninformed derision, snidely ignorant remarks, etc. I’m happy to say, I see that changing as more and more people get first-hand experience with Segways. And tours have had a major role in that change.

    As someone who is dependent on his Segway in his daily life, I’m gratified to see the shift in attitudes.

  12. Phil May 19, 2011 at 1:26 pm - Reply

    Many of you that responded to this article about Segway are quite ignorant and choose to only see the side of a fellow Richmonder or business owner. Being a Richmonder myself, I know others outside of the Richmond area that were seriously injured in accidents due to equpment malfunction and improper training or no training at all.

    Yes there are waivers with MOST things we all rent but there is also the valid point of owners or emplyees in any industry to do their job especially when there’s risk involved! Peoples lives can be significantly altered because of negligence within the management of the business, this is common sense. Having insurance on products is to protect the owner and the user/renter but negligence should absolutely be at the expense of the management and if faulty equipment is the cause then the manufacturer should also be responsible and in these cases, Segway and Segway of Richmond.

    A pedestrian walking across a street looking in all directions for vehicles gets hit by a bus sustaining injury that will effect their ability to work or have a good quality of life because the driver wasn’t paying attention because he/she was focused on a malfuntion within the dashboard.

    Who should be responsible?? The pedestrian, certainly not!

  13. 31 year old May 19, 2011 at 2:59 pm - Reply

    Hey Phil, I’m not ignorant. But I would suggest you re-read Tim Edwards’ remarks above.

    Also, your example of the bus vs. the pedestrian holds no merit in this argument. There is no negligence on the part of Segway here. Obviously you’ve never ridden on one.

    I for one am glad to see so much support of a local business that is doing a great job getting Richmonders like myself to come downtown and spend a few dollars.

  14. Phil May 19, 2011 at 7:55 pm - Reply

    Hey 31yr old, I wrote a response here because several of the comments seem to be looking at principle and nothing else. I actually have ridden 2 Segways in the past and both times were in NYC where it is much more caotic that Richmond.

    The internet is loaded with Segway issues and most of these comments clearly supporting their city rather giving other the benefit of the doubt and having empathy and trying to look at all sides of the scenario…. I too am a business owner and support the city…

  15. Mark May 20, 2011 at 9:30 am - Reply

    Phil,

    A pedestrian crossing the road that IS LOOKING IN ALL DIRECTIONS does NOT get hit by a bus. They see the bus coming (and not slowing) and get out of the way.

  16. Jordan Pridgen June 15, 2011 at 10:30 pm - Reply

    I actually worked as a tour guide for Segway of Richmond for two summers and have clocked over a hundred hours on a Segway because of it. People love to say that the Segway was malfunctioning, but if any of our Segways had actually malfunctioned it would have happened to the guides at least once. Riding a Segway is safer than riding a bike, but you don’t see people suing bike manufacturers when they break their legs.

  17. Veronica October 19, 2011 at 8:09 am - Reply

    Survival of the fittest. These people are just not going to admit that they put themselves at risk, hurt themselves, and they are embarrassed about doing so.

    Silly people.

    Why don’t more drivers blame car accidents on cell phone manufactures? “Seriously officer, I blame Apple for the accident. If they didn’t make the phone so complicated I wouldn’t have rear-ended that guy!”

  18. Sol Rosenberg October 19, 2011 at 2:31 pm - Reply

    Punitive Damages!!!

  19. Bill January 27, 2013 at 10:08 pm - Reply

    Commenting on the safety of a device without knowing both 1) The number of devices in use and 2) The number of accidents involving the device is meaningless. How many Segways are there? How many serious accidents have there been? The doctors at one hospital in DC reported 41 serious Segway-injuries at their hospital in a 44 month period – about 1 per month. Instead of just tossing accusations back and forth, collect and analyze data: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20889236

  20. Stephen Ward May 29, 2013 at 5:27 pm - Reply

    There are lots of Segway suits but I thought that this one was interesting because it involved two Wards. The problems seem to be an alleged lack of driver training and pedestrians being struck by Segways. As I undrstand it, many cities have banned Segways from downtown sidewalks. I guess that they can’t be any more dangerous than those little yellow carts that tourists drive in SF traffic, SGW

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