by Dave Daley
of the Journal Sentinel staff
A 12-year-old Egg Harbor boy whose arm was wrenched off last year by a defective Laundromat washing machine won nearly $9 million Thursday in what legal experts believe is among the largest personal-injury settlements in state history.
The $8.85 million awarded Michael R. Newell and his family by the manufacturers and distributors of the heavy-duty commercial washing machine is believed to be the largest award ever for an amputation injury in Wisconsin. It is among the half-dozen biggest personal-injury awards in the state’s history.
Michael, 11 at the time of the accident in May 1994 at the Bay Ridge Laundromat in Sturgeon Bay, had his left arm reattached later during a 15-hour operation.
However, he’ll probably never regain more than 5% use of the arm, court records show.
“The doctors say it’s a hanging appendage that’s about 95% useless,” said William Cannon, the Brookfield lawyer who negotiated the settlement on behalf of Newell.
“This is probably the fifth-or-sixth-largest settlement ever for personal-injury case in Wisconsin history,” Cannon added. “And for an arm amputation, there are no ifs ands or buts – this is a record.”
Under the settlement, approved Thursday in Brown County Circuit Court, the manufacturer of the washing machine, IPSO International NV of Belgium, will pay the Newell family $5 million, and the distributor, Mac-Gray Co. Inc., will pay $3.5 million.
In addition, Wisconsin-based American Queensway Inc., which installed the IPSO Big Mac triple-load washer, is paying the Newell family $350,000 to avoid a jury trial on the personal-injury claim, Cannon said.
Under the settlement, Cannon and his law firm, Cannon & Dunphy S.C., are to receive $2.9 million in attorney fees – 33% of the $8.85 million settlement, the standard share generally given lawyers in personal-injury suits, Cannon said.
The only remaining defendants in the case are the owners of the Laundromat, Struck Bros. Inc., who are not part of Thursday’s settlement. Cannon said negotiations with Struck Bros. had ended and a jury trial on a more than $1 million claim against them is expected in May next year.
“We believe they were negligent for having known unsafe premises – the defective door on the washing machine,” Cannon said.
The injury to Michael, described at the time as a freak accident, happened after the boy, his older brother and their mother went to the Laundromat to wash blankets, rugs and other items too big to wash at home.
The mother, Terri Newell, sent Michael in to see whether the machines had stopped. He opened the door of one while the machine was in the spin cycle, then apparently got his arm caught in the machine’s rotation after trying to stuff back in laundry that had fallen out.
According to Cannon, the washing machine was designed with two safety features, neither of which worked: a locking device to keep the door shut while in operation, and device to stop the machine from spinning if the door is pried open.
The first police officer on the scene reported the mother holding the boy, trying to stop bleeding from his shoulder and the boy’s left arm, which she had retrieved from the washing machine.
In a letter made part of the settlement, Hani S. Matloub, a professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at the Medical College of Wisconsin, said the boy still suffered considerable psychological problems relating to the injury, including sleep disturbances, nightmares and flashbacks.
Matloub said Michael would need further bone grafts, nerve grafts and other surgeries over the next few years that may cost as much as $100,000.