John Kelly's Washington

Lawn mower class-action lawsuit alleges widespread fraud

By John Kelly
Thursday, April 22, 2010

If you bought a lawn mower in the past 16 years, there's a very good chance that a flimsy little postcard recently fell through your mail slot. And what an interesting little postcard it is, alleging as it does widespread fraud by the lawn mower industrial complex.

While companies such as Briggs & Stratton, Toro, Honda and Tecumseh deny the charges, they have nevertheless agreed to a settlement that has them collectively forking over $65 million. If you decide to join the class-action lawsuit, your share could be up to $35 for a walk-behind lawn mower and up to $75 for a riding mower.

I got a postcard, and it left me scratching my head, so I called up the relevant documents (conveniently posted at http:// and spoke to some of the people involved. It sure beat mowing the lawn.

The case began in 2003, when a character I like to call Deep Cut walked into a Minnetonka, Minn., law firm and said he was privy to some interesting information. Deep Cut worked for a company that made lawn mower motors, and he said the engines' horsepower ratings were bogus.

We are a nation obsessed with horsepower, not just in our vehicles but in our tools. It is the currency of the lawn mower, more important than cut width, height adjustment, mulching ability, even -- in the case of riding mowers -- cup holders. If you've ever shopped for a lawn mower, you've stood in Sears wondering whether to get the 5 horsepower walk-behind or splurge on the 6.

Deep Cut said there was no difference.

"You're in there paying to get the same product for more money," said Vincent Esades, the lead plaintiff's attorney in the class-action lawsuit. "Four-and-a-half horsepower, 5, 5 1/2 , 6.75 -- they're all the exact same engine. The price would go up with each one of those fictitious stickers."

Vincent's law firm joined forces with others across the country and went to work. One lawn mower company, MTD Products, quickly agreed to settle. "They don't make the engines, but they make the lawn mowers and sell to Home Depot and Lowe's," Vincent said. "They came to us and said 'There' s a great problem in this industry. . . . We think this industry needs to be cleaned up.' "

According to a settlement agreement MTD signed in 2006, the company agreed to provide the plaintiffs with "documents, witnesses and other information." Said Vincent: "If you can't break into the inner circle, you'd never know."

Big Mow had been breached.

The final approval hearing is set for June 22 and the legal odyssey is almost at an end. Some 23 million postcards were mailed out, the recipients culled from the customer records of retailers and manufacturers. If every single one of those consumers signs on to the suit, the $65 million won't go very far. About 340,000 claims have been made, Vincent said. The lawn mower companies have also agreed to extend warranties for a year and change the way they test and report horsepower.

For their efforts, Vincent and the other lawyers are asking the judge for a third of the $65 million, plus an additional $14 million. That's about $36 million.

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