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Risky Business: What could go wrong?

By Mary Ann Gormly

April 4, 2024

A man was working in his yard. Spring was coming and he wanted to prepare his garden and his lawn for the upcoming growing season. His son worked at a rental store where the owner of the store allowed employees to borrow equipment for personal use. The rental store owner believed ‘what better way to explain the use of a piece of equipment to their customers than firsthand knowledge.’

The rental store owner made sure each of his employees were familiar with all of their rental equipment and took pride in his employees’ vast knowledge. The man and his son had borrowed an aerator each spring for the last few years, and they were both familiar with its operation.

After a break for lunch, the man went back outside to pick up where he left off. His neighbor had come into his yard during his break and was looking at the aerator. The neighbor asked how hard the machine was to operate and the employee’s father gave him a demonstration. After explaining its use, the man got back to work. He told his neighbor he could watch him from a distance if he wanted to learn more about the machine’s uses.

Several hours later as the man completed his last pass across his yard, his neighbor came back out and asked if he could borrow the aerator for his small patch of grass. The rental store employee’s father knew he probably shouldn’t let him use the machine and he offered to do it for him before the next day when the machine was due back. He was tired and wanted to relax.

Early the next morning, the rental store employee’s father went outside to work in his yard. His neighbor came back over and convinced him to lend the aerator to him. The neighbor demonstrated everything he had learned the day before and so the man relented. ‘What could go wrong?’ he thought.

He soon learned what could go wrong. He was back inside his house later in the day and heard a gut-wrenching scream. His neighbor had somehow caught his leg in the aerator and was severely injured. The man ran outside to the sound of sirens and emergency vehicles racing to his neighbor’s house. The aerator was lodged into his leg for nearly an hour until the equipment was able to be dismantled.

Several months later, the neighbor and his attorney sent a demand to the rental store owner for $1.4 million and a suit was filed. The rental store owner had reported the accident to his insurance company when it happened, so they had already been working on the claim. When the paperwork was received, it was forwarded to their claims adjuster. The manufacturer of the aerator was also included in the suit.

The attorney for the neighbor indicated their primary target in the suit was the manufacturer of the machine. The attorney felt the accident happened due to inadequate guarding of the rear section of the aerator, and the rental store owner and employees had nothing to do with the design of the machine.

During the process, defense counsel advised the insurance company that the manufacturer was going to be dismissed from the suit because it was in bankruptcy and the court discharged all its debts. That would leave the rental store as the only remaining defendant.

The only allegation levied against the rental store was an alleged duty to warn regarding the unit not being equipped with a protective shield behind the rotating tines. Defense counsel argued that condition was easily observable to a reasonable and prudent person, that the rental store was not the designer or manufacturer of the aerator and further, the injured man was not a customer; rather, he was given the aerator to use by his neighbor, the father of an employee, so there was no legal duty to warn in the first place.

Ultimately, the matter resolved at mediation for just over $100,000.

Mary Ann Gormly is a loss analyst for ARA Insurance, Overland Park, Kan. For more information, call 800-821-6580 or visit