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Three lawsuits, two wheels, one sharp turn

Michael Schwartz October 19, 2011 24

A trio of lawsuits has all but killed a local Segway dealership and forced its owner to roll quickly into a surprising new business model.

Segway of Richmond, the Shockoe Slip dealer that sells the gyroscopic two-wheeled vehicles, is going to shut down. Meanwhile, owner Buck Ward is launching Experience Richmond, a new company that will bring trolley cars back to the city.

The Segway store has been hit with three lawsuits this year by customers who claim they were injured while riding Segways on tours offered by the dealership.

The business’s liability insurance kicked in to deal with the suits, but that’s where the story took an unexpected turn, according to Ward, who opened the dealership three and a half years ago.

“We got hit by a freight train,” he said.

Ward’s insurance company dropped the company’s liability policy, a must-have to be a Segway dealer. And because the three suits are dragging on, Ward couldn’t find another insurer to cover his business.

“I didn’t see that coming at all,” Ward said. “It’s basically put us out of the Segway business altogether.”

Ward didn’t stand flat-footed for long.

He leased his storefront to a Williamsburg-based Segway tour company that has insurance. Then last week he went to the West Coast and spent $400,000 on five old-fashioned trolley cars.

“We have to change, and we have to survive,” Ward said. “Our business was killed.”

The trolley cars will be the linchpin of Experience Richmond, a company Ward says will eventually offer tours of the city via trolley, scooter and bike. He will also organize whitewater rafting and kayaking on the river.

Ward’s new venture will try to play off the history of the trolley car in Richmond.

The city was apparently home to the first successful electric trolley system in the country, way back in 1887, Ward said. The five trolleys he purchased are on their way to the East Coast, where they’ll be converted into electric hybrids.

“So we can in fact say the electric trolley has returned to Richmond,” Ward said.

Having to step away from the Segway business wasn’t an easy decision: “It was a fabulous cash cow,” Ward said.

In just a little more than three years, Ward’s dealership served 14,000 customers. That includes thousands of Segway tours, which made up the bulk of the company revenue. He said he sold about 100 Segways last year and has sold about 75 this year.

Ward has been in contact with prospective buyers who would take over the dealership rights and then lease the space from Ward and share it with Experience Richmond.

As for being put out of business at the hands of three personal injury cases, Ward said there is no bad blood.

“I don’t have any ill feelings toward them at all. I really don’t. You don’t ever want to see people get hurt,” said Ward. “But it’s unfortunate because the business that we started on the back of a napkin is no longer.”

Jim Thorsen, an attorney with Marchant, Thorsen, Honey, Baldwin and Meyer who is representing two of the plaintiffs that sued Ward’s business, said the cases are pending and will likely go to trial next year.

When asked about Segway of Richmond shutting down as a result of the suits, Thorsen said it was the first he had heard of it and that he doesn’t set out to put anyone out of business.

“All I know is that I have two clients that have that have serious injuries,” he said.

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

Thorsen and his clients are battling the lawyers hired by the insurance companies that covered Ward and Segway Inc., the New Hampshire-based manufacturer of the vehicles that was also sued in each suit.

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24 Comments »

  1. Jordan Pridgen October 19, 2011 at 8:06 am - Reply

    This is one of the saddest things I have heard in a long time.

    I worked as a tour guide for Segway of Richmond for two summers, gave countless tours, and let me tell you these lawsuits are ridiculous and depriving the city of a spectacular way of discovering history and having a good time. Just as the article states, thousands of people came through the store and got to experience how much fun and how easy segways can be to ride, and the people who listened to my fellow guides and my safety advice and used common sense never had any trouble.

    The thing is that segways are a vehicle just like a bike or a car, and people seem to think that somehow they should be more outraged that you can get hurt if you do something careless on a segway than they do on other machines. I can tell you for a fact that when a segway “lurches” or “lunges” it is responding to it’s rider. I can’t count the number of times a careless and inattentive person on a tour would panic or almost run into someone and then claim that they had done nothing wrong, but “their segway had malfunctioned”

    Well having booked hundreds of hours on many different segways myself, I’d say that it seems a little convenient that a segway malfunctioned in the 2-3 hours that someone started using it, but never once acted in an uncontrolled or dangerous way for any of the guides over their many hours of use. People get too comfortable with the segways too fast, and the problem is no one wants to have to admit that they didn’t listen to the safety talk and made a dumb mistake.

    The store was always upfront about the fact that you could get hurt on a tour. It’s certainly not something that was likely to happen, but it was a definite possibility that people signed waivers at the beginning of every tour to account for. The idea that these customers were somehow mislead or are somehow not responsible for mishandling the machines after their instructions is ridiculous.

    I’m glad that Buck is keeping the Richmond historical experience alive despite all this, and I plan on working as a guide for his Trolly tours when I get a chance, but I can’t help feel that a system that would shut down a business as unique and wonderfully local as Segway of Richmond over people’s inability to take responsibility for their own mistakes is broken somehow.

  2. Blackbeered October 19, 2011 at 8:56 am - Reply

    The lawsuits reinforces my belief that the people who live and visit Richmond are not the brightest lightbulbs in the box.

    Segway dealerships thrive everywhere else, but the renters here just can’t seem to grasp simple instructions. The “victims” here need to be given IQ tests … or were they out to game the system from the get-go? Have they moved on to other cities? Do they have a track record of feigning injury?

    I do hope all of this is revealed at trial.

    I just rented a chipper/shredder. I wasn’t told by Home Depot that, if I climbed into the chute and stuck my head in the chopper, I could get hurt. Maybe the fact I could drive to the store tipped them off that I wasn’t a complete moron.

    We have so many other examples of the majority of people having to suffer due to the carelessness and recklessness of others. The credo in America has become “if something bad happens to me, it has to be someone else’s fault.”

  3. Scot McRoberts October 19, 2011 at 8:57 am - Reply

    The U.S. tort system can be brutal on small business. One would think that a consumer, informed of risk, could take responsibility for their decisions to take that risk.

    The great part of this story is Buck’s resilience and rapid reinvention. Throughout the recession and it’s lingering aftermath, the business owners that had the creativity and willingness to reinvent their businesses were the ones that succeeded. Reinvention is part of the new normal for business owners.

    Good luck to Buck, and all small business owners in these difficult times.

  4. JB October 19, 2011 at 9:28 am - Reply

    Sad indeed!

    We really like having them as a fixture to downtown…

    Can an insurance company really drop you before covering you for a lawsuit that they’ve been paid to? I’m confused about that part. They are obligated to cover the losses for these suits, right?

    J

  5. Steven Scott October 19, 2011 at 12:12 pm - Reply

    @JB, I believed they dropped them going forward while covering the existing claims. At least that’s how I read it.

  6. Greg P October 19, 2011 at 12:14 pm - Reply

    If the machines truly malfunctioned and an injury resulted from that then I can understand the multiple law suits. However, there is an inherent risk when getting on a segway , when will people understand this and take responsibility for their own decisions and actions. Far too often our legal system enables and reinforces people to not take responsibility for their own actions. It is sad that a once thriving small business in Richmond has to shut down because of others who refuse to take responsibiltiy for their choices.

  7. Jordan Pridgen October 19, 2011 at 1:40 pm - Reply

    I have a very very hard time believing the machines truly malfunctioned. Segways are like little two-wheeled tanks. They can take a lot of damage and tend to be very reliable. If these segways were malfunctioning, it wouldn’t have been in these few isolated instances, and it would have happened to a tour guide at least once. Like I said above, it didn’t. I have no doubt in my mind that the mistake was user error.

  8. Drew S. October 19, 2011 at 7:48 pm - Reply

    I’d wager the three “victims” are lazy gold diggers… and the reason all of us have to deal with such ridiculous warning labels, preliminary instructions, and added cost to most things we buy (someone’s got to pay for all that extra paper, ink and liability insurance).

    So indirectly, ALL of us have to pay to line the pockets of these losers and their attorneys… And have our quality of life interfered with daily with ridiculously obvious precautions, warnings, disclaimers and waivers. Thanks, jerks.

    I think anyone who files an injury claim against a company should be required to first visit a VA Hospital, where people have REAL injuries (which they incurred preserving the rights of all Americans — even ones w/ exaggerated or bogus legal claims).

    Then again, these jerks may have such twisted morals they might feign an injury while visiting the VA and try suing the US Government too.

    We need to return to “The Land of Common Sense and Personal Responsibility”. Think how much better the world would be.

  9. ms October 19, 2011 at 7:54 pm - Reply

    Wow! This is insane but good luck Buck. The city of Charleston,SC has beautiful horse driven carriages with outstanding narrations of the city. Richmond has WAY more history to offer but no organised way to show itslef off. We really need more people like him.

    Best of luck!!!

  10. Drew October 19, 2011 at 8:43 pm - Reply

    I want to have lunch with Buck Ward. I mean, we have all faced some setbacks in our lives, but what this guy experienced and from what he was able to bounce back so quickly seems like a mini-Harvard Business Case. I will definitely take you up on the whitewater rafting or kayak offer, listen and follow your guide’s safety instructions, and take responsibility for my own injuries if/when I get thrown from the raft.

    Kudos, sir!

  11. RW October 20, 2011 at 6:53 am - Reply

    A testament to a man with an iron will. In the face of adversity one needs to look at Buck and take heed. Never give up. Do not let imbeciles ruin your dreams. Keep fighting. Even when those who you paid good money to defend you leave you high and dry. It would be EASY to become bitter and full of excuses. Instead we see a strong man, picking himself off the ground, never quitting. A true American Entrepreneur. This is what they need to teach in school. Maybe his sense of personal responsibility and optimism can spread to those idiots in Wall Street protests?

    Way to go Buck! We will all be praying for your new business

  12. Brian Haney October 20, 2011 at 7:39 am - Reply

    I work for a commercial insurer in town, and the comment that Ward “couldn’t find another insurer to cover his business” is puzzling. The commercial insurance market is very soft right now, which means it’s a buyers market. I have a hard time imagining that NO insurer was willing to cover that exposure. It’s possible he might not be able to find coverage from one of the big, standard lines companies, but surely he could have found something from one of the many specialty commercial insurers. The price might be higher, but the coverage is available.

  13. buck ward October 20, 2011 at 8:53 am - Reply

    -we did go out to specialty insurance markets and were turned down flat out by 16 underwriters who didn’t want to touch it because of the pending claims . 17th would underwrite partially but with inadequate coverage and at 30x what we had been paying..

  14. Bill Barnes October 20, 2011 at 9:47 am - Reply

    Brian is correct in the fact that there are several carriers that would cover this risk all day long…………………prior to the pending lawsuits. Therefore, I am pretty sure that Buck is 100% honest when he is telling you that no one wants to touch it in the midst of the current situation, they would be crazy to right now. It is a shame that our country no longer holds anyone accountable for their own actions. It is always someone else’s fault. Good luck Buck, I wish you the best. Let me know if I can be of any help.

  15. buck ward October 20, 2011 at 10:44 am - Reply

    Bill: can you please call me at your earliest convenience? Thank you. Buck 357-3100

  16. Dave Martin October 20, 2011 at 2:15 pm - Reply

    I have had the pleasure to take a Segway tour and work with Buck. I can tell you that the Segway is a breeze and a thrill to ride, but that we knew our risks. To allow someone’s lack of responsibility or coordination to take out such an important Richmond tourism activity- that’s what’s criminal. Here’s to you Buck for planning a rebound- good luck!

  17. William Sprouse October 20, 2011 at 8:05 pm - Reply

    Go Buck!

    WC

  18. buck ward October 21, 2011 at 5:37 am - Reply

    Thanks to all of you on these pages and who have called in or emailed us expressing your support . We appreciate it greatly.

    To be sure, we are operating and conducting all of our published tours . We have outsourced the operation of the tours to Old Towne Segtours of Fredericksburg (article had mentioned Williamsburg so small correction ) and are running tours and honoring coupons 7 days a week. Our guides many of whom have been with us for years are now Old Towne employees. But our customers will see many of the same guides as before . When the store us converted to Experience Richmond and completed the sale of the business , we will continue to offer through partnering relationship Segway tours . Experience Richmond will be all about seeing and experiencing Richmond any way you want – Segway, trolley, bike , scooter, tram, carriage, rickshaw and walking. Our City is very rich in history and very beautiful as we all know . We will continue to promote it using a variety of fun , informative and interesting modes of sustainable transportation and package a variety of attractions along with it . We have an incredible story to tell about Richmond! Charleston will have nothing on us in time!

    Ps love to have lunch with you anytime, Drew! 357-3100.

  19. Donna October 21, 2011 at 8:08 am - Reply

    I would like to nominate Buck and Jim Porter (2BNB) as city of Richmond Promoters of the Decade!

  20. Carlos Chafin October 21, 2011 at 8:52 am - Reply

    I’ve known Buck for a while and I’m very aware of his once successful Segway business. If you haven’t ridden a Segway, they are a blast and like anything on wheels including a wheel chair, you can get hurt. Buck is smart person with good intentions, he wanted his clients to have fun and experience this great historical city we call home in a unique way. I could understand a lawsuit if someone is misleading or reckless with their business promises but Segway has always been honest and very upfront about risk. So a few people made a mistake and injured themselves. It’s unfortunate for sure but to take out this business and the opportunity for thousands of others to enjoy this safe and I do mean safe activity (a bicycle yields many times more injuries) what does this say? It’s certainly not fair to Buck or even the city. It’s just very sad. Imagine if something like this had happened to the early automobile.

  21. Lee Dickinson October 22, 2011 at 10:06 pm - Reply

    This is really too bad. My whole family did the Richmond historical tour, and it was one of the most fun Richmond things we’ve ever done. I have been pushing it to everyone who would listen. I am glad Buck has found a way to continue offering the tour and to expand his business in other directions. Such a shame to have the insurance dropped, especially as the lawsuits will likely go nowhere. how can they possibly prove that the machine malfunctioned?

  22. kk November 22, 2011 at 12:48 pm - Reply

    I really hope that these LEACHES do not win their law suit… America is a such a SUE-happy country now it is hard to believe that there is anything for us to do considering how often idiots, like the 3 sueing Segway, seem to pop up. They will no doubt get several thousand dollars for their “pain and suffering” please….

    I hope the 3 read these posts and see how disgusted people are at them.

  23. Harry Green December 10, 2011 at 9:06 am - Reply

    Buck, I am the Segway of Savannah owner you trained and gave a tour to back in July of 2009. I am now in business in Savannah, thanks to your organization for helping me make the right decision. You have run a first class operation from the get go. Since I am from Richmond(Reynolds Metals employee of 25 years.) I can say Richmond will be poorer without you. You and Chad have upheld high standards our whole industry should be proud. Harry Green

  24. mike hogeland December 27, 2011 at 11:16 am - Reply

    I LOVED my segway tour that my 16 yr old paid for on my 50th bday. i enjoyed seeing richmond and i enjoyed the way segway of richmond handled our tour.

    i am so sick of whiny jerks wanting money for being STUPID.
    a company cant discriminate, so i must fly cross country with FAT flopping on me for hours, even though it is obvious the person cant fit into the seat.

    some people walking, trip on smooth surfaces due to balance but think they can segway, or bike ride.

    when will some sort of balance come back to society?
    OH, and my Mom loved her covair convertible. she was pissed at nader in the 60s. i still remember riding it.

    advertisers lie about products on tv, no lawsuits.
    politicians lie daily about data that can be easily proven, nothing.

    an idiot decides to ride a vehicle that involves coordination and forethought and sues because the vehicle is smarter than he is…..

    lawyers take the money and say, gee we bancrupted folks by suing for millions over a 50K injury caused by poor decision of the person SUING, no big deal….

    sigh

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