Editor's Note: Rural Lifestyle Dealer is seeking a comment from Smolen Law, the attorneys for Shylah Beall, about the case. Watch for updates for that additional information as well as if the case is appealed.
On Jan. 16, a Payne County, Okla., jury found after 27 minutes of deliberation that "by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant, Deere & Co., acted in reckless disregard for the rights of others." They awarded Shylah Beall $3 million in actual compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages, according to a story in the Stillwater News Press. Beall's husband, James Beall died on May 25, 2014 when the tractor he was driving rolled over, trapping him underneath.
The case involved a John Deere 3038 E Compact Utility Tractor with a 305 front loader that was sold to the Bealls by P&K Equipment Inc. of Stillwater. The tractor and an optional front loader were assembled at the Deere plant in Georgia and then shipped to P&K Equipment.
Shylah Beall's suit claimed that the tractor was unsafe and had not been properly configured by either the factory or the dealership before she and her husband took delivery. Throughout the lawsuit, Deere denied the accusations.
Natalie Higgins, vice president of government relations and general counsel for the Equipment Dealers Assn., provides this analysis of the case to Rural Lifestyle Dealer.
RLD: Can you explain what happens next in the case?
Natalie Higgins is the Vice President of Government Relations and General Counsel. In her role as General Counsel, Higgins is the first point of contact for members through EDA’s Legal Resources Hotline.
Natalie Higgins: Generally, a verdict of this size will lead to an appeal. The basis for such an appeal will be some evidentiary irregularity or improper ruling while the matter was pending before the trial court. Often, the parties will utilize the appeal process as leverage to urge settlement for an amount which is less than the jury verdict. Such settlements give the parties certainty and eliminate the risk of the appellate court awarding a new trial. It also allows the parties to structure the settlement sum in a manner which may be more advantageous to the parties from a tax perspective. For example, in Missouri, one half of any award of punitive damages must be paid to the state. This results in many post-verdict settlements where the parties agree to a settlement in lieu of an appeal and structure the payment so that only a small portion of the settlement is allocated as punitive damages. Thus, the plaintiff may actually “net” more money on a smaller settlement figure due to the breakdown.
RLD: Do you think this is setting a precedent re: accidents and injuries and equipment manufacturers?
Higgins: There is significant precedential value to the case in the state of Oklahoma. Product liability laws, however, vary state by state. Thus, while it may be persuasive, it will not be dispositive in other jurisdictions.
RLD: What could this mean for this dealership? Is there a possibility that they could still be sued?
The dealership was sued and ultimately dismissed after a year and a half of litigation. This is likely the result of the contractual relationship between the dealer and John Deere Corporation as the dismissal specifically waived the “empty chair” defense. The “empty chair” defense is a defense that allows a defendant to blame a party that the plaintiff didn’t sue for the alleged injuries and other damages. Generally, if the Plaintiff and a single Defendant reach a settlement, that Defendant will be dismissed “with prejudice.” The dismissal of the dealer in this case was not “with prejudice,” meaning that the Plaintiff could re-file a lawsuit against the dealer so long as the filing falls within the applicable statute of limitations.
RLD: What implications might this case have on dealerships going forward?
Higgins: It is difficult to paint in broad strokes. Generally, though, preparation is key. Dealers need to ensure they have proper procedures in place to help identify potential safety issues before they become legal issues. This means the dealer will need to provide certain safety disclosures for each sale and, if necessary, obtain liability waivers if recommended safety features are declined by the purchaser.