Manufacturers Not Liable in Farm Accident Case

 

On December 18, 2019, the Iowa Court of Appeals issued a ruling on several evidentiary issues concerning a farming accident. The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decisions.

Background

In 2011, a farmer and his son were applying anhydrous ammonia to a field. The farmer rented the application system from a cooperative. When the farmer made a right turn, there was no slack in the hose which caused the hose and valve to be pulled apart. This released a toxic cloud of anhydrous ammonia. Tragically, the farmer died as a result of the exposure and his son was injured trying to save him. The cooperative and its insurer paid approximately $4 million to the family to settle the claims from the accident.

The insurer then filed this lawsuit against four different manufacturers seeking contribution for their share in making various parts used in the application system. One manufacturer settled. After the trial, a jury found the remaining three manufacturers to not be at fault. The jury assigned fifty-one percent of the fault to the cooperative and forty-nine percent to the farmer. The issue came before the Court of Appeals to decide whether the district court erred in allowing certain evidence to be admitted, in allowing two directed verdicts, and in including the farmer’s family on the special verdict form.

Admissibility of OSHA Violation and Similar Incidents

The district court allowed an Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) violation by the cooperative to be included in the trial. The cooperative claimed that its OSHA violation was only relevant in its relation to its employees, not to a third-party, such as the farmer. The cooperative employees can be hired by a farmer to apply the anhydrous ammonia using nurse tanks and applicators. This same equipment was rented to the farmer. Because of this, the court found the farmer was just as likely to be injured as any employee. Therefore, the cooperative’s OSHA violation was relevant to determine negligence.

The court also considered whether evidence of similar accidents could be admitted. Evidence of prior incidents may be admissible “to show the existence of a dangerous condition.” Lovick v. Wil-Rich, 588 N.W. 2d 688, 697 (Iowa 1999). Normally, these must incidents must occur beforehand to be admissible. Here, three similar accidents happened after the farmer’s death. Therefore, the Court of Appeals affirmed the district court ruling prohibiting evidence of the other three accidents.

Directed Verdicts Due to Lack of Substantial Evidence

The district court granted two motions for directed verdicts concerning design defect and breach of warranty of fitness. The district court granted the two motions for directed verdict because there was not sufficient evidence to supports these claims.

The insurer claimed the hose stand built by one of the manufacturers contained a design defect. This manufacturer sold—but did not market—a hose stand which would keep the hose off the ground. This product was used by the farmer. The insurer’s expert witness testified the hose stand manufacturer should have known the product would be used to hold the hose up rather than chaining up the hose. However, this hose stand was not part of the design. It was not part of the sale for running gear and had to be purchased separately. Additionally, there was no evidence that other similar manufacturers sold a hose stand with the equipment. Because the manufacturer conformed to the state of the art running gear, there was insufficient evidence to support a design defect claim.

The insurer also claimed there was a breach of an implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose. It claimed the excess flow valves were not fit for the purpose of applying anhydrous ammonia and the manufacturer was aware of this. To prevail on this type of claim, the proponent must first show the seller had reason to know of the buyer’s particular purpose. There was no evidence here that the cooperative had any communication with the manufacturer. The manufacturer did not know who the ultimate purchaser was, the cooperative, or the ultimate purpose of the valve. Therefore, the Court of Appeals affirmed the motions for a directed verdict on both accounts.

Special Verdict Form

Finally, the court considered whether the farmer’s family should have been included on the verdict form when they were not parties to this lawsuit. Iowa law states:

A right of contribution exists between or among two or more persons who are liable upon the same indivisible claim for the same injury, death, or harm, whether or not judgment has been recovered against all or any of them. It may be enforced either in the original action or by a separate action brought for that purpose. The basis for contribution is each person’s equitable share of the obligations, including the share of fault of a claimant, as determined in accordance with section 668.3.

Iowa Code § 668.5. This means each party must be held liable based on their share of the fault, including that of the claimant. The family entered into a settlement on behalf of the farmer and would be considered a “claimant” in this case. In order to determine the amount of contribution, the fault of the claimant must be considered. Therefore, the district court correctly included the family on the special verdict form.

CALT does not provide legal advice. Any information provided on this website is not intended to be a substitute for legal services from a competent professional. CALT's work is supported by fee-based seminars and generous private gifts. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in the material contained on this website do not necessarily reflect the views of Iowa State University.

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