A Chilhowie, Va., mother claims her 5-year-old daughter, Rebecca "Hope" Wagoner, was killed in June when she climbed inside a commercial washing machine and it malfunctioned, starting the wash cycle without coins being inserted and suffocating her child.
A lawsuit filed by Rebecca Billings Wagoner against the washer's manufacturer includes her first public account of the day Hope became trapped inside the machine at the Village Laundry and Wagoner used a rock to bash open the washer's front window to free her child.
Hope's half brother, who shut the washer door after the girl climbed inside, has been charged with involuntary manslaughter in the June 17 incident. But his mother claims in the $18.9 million lawsuit that the machine was defective and should have been installed with an emergency cutoff switch.
The washer's manufacturer, Pellerin Milnor Corp. of Louisiana, has a history of faulty equipment that causes its machine to "slam start" without coins and has been responsible for four entrapments resulting in serious injury and one fatality, all involving children and occurring prior to Hope's death, according to the lawsuit.
The most recent fatality occurred in 1991, when 3-year-old Sheldon Yazzie of Chinle, Ariz., was fatally scalded inside a Milnor washer.
Jim Moran, general counsel for Pellerin Milnor, said engineers from the company examined the machine from the Village Laundry after Hope's death. He said the coin board, which tells the machine when to start, had been replaced previously and noted, "As far as we can see, it did not malfunction."
While the lawsuit claims that there have been hundreds of complaints about defective coin boards over the years, Moran said none has been proven to be faulty. Moran said Milnor has replaced thousands of the boards since Sheldon Yazzie was killed, but he said it was strictly "out of an abundance of caution."
Wagoner could not be reached for comment, but Hope's father, William Wagoner, said yesterday that the lawsuit was filed to hold Milnor responsible for mechanical problems about which he claimed the company has long known.
"This is the same machine that's killed and hurt every child," Wagoner said, his voice choked with tears. "They don't sell public shares in their company, so they don't have to answer to anyone. But now they have to answer to me."
The Wagoners' attorney, Jeff Campbell, said yesterday that evidence at trial will show that the coin board on the machine in the Village Laundry had not been replaced. He further alleged that neither a stop button on the machine, a safety release on the door nor a clearly marked electrical disconnect within 50 feet of the machine was in place, as mandated by the national electrical code.
"Effectively, there was a child in the machine and no way to stop it or gain access to stop it," Campbell said.
The owners of the Village Laundry, who also were named in the lawsuit filed Thursday in Smyth County Circuit Court, could not be reached yesterday.
Officials with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said they have never levied sanctions against Pellerin Milnor. But in 1983, the commission issued an alert warning that serious injuries -- 44 since 1963, nearly half involving children -- were known to have occurred with the use and operation of coin-operated, heavy-duty, front-loading washers and washer/extractors. The warning remains on the commission Web site.
According to the lawsuit, the washer in the Village Laundry behaved much like other faulty units, starting without coins when the door was closed by Hope's half brother. Once the machine began its cycle, Hope was locked inside, helplessly tumbling as the machine filled with water. Hope's mother was outside when the girl became trapped.
Hope died a few hours later of asphyxiation, according to the medical examiner.
Her mother "suffered extensive cuts to her arms, hands and finger and then endured and continues to endure severe, ongoing mental and emotional trauma from the horror of watching her young daughter die a violent death right before her eyes," the lawsuit says.
Hope's half brother, who is not being named because he is a juvenile, is scheduled for a hearing Sept. 16.
"It's hard for me to believe he'd have had an appreciation that the machine would start on its own, without the insertion of any coins," Campbell said.
Shortly after Hope was killed, Smyth County social services officials ordered that the Wagoners' five other children be placed in the custody of other family members while they investigate whether neglect played a role in Hope's death.