Plaintiffs alleged the firm was liable after a worker helping to unload a truck load of baby chicks died from complications of an injury he suffered when a trucker operating a forklift ran over the worker’s ankle.
The trucking company argued it was prevented from making its entire case because the driver refused to testify in court, despite being issued a subpoena. However, the 10th Circuit panel ruled that trial judges have much discernment in how they run their trials, and that extended in this case to the judge’s decision not to send a U.S. marshal to force the trucker to testify.
In Hill v. J.B. Hunt Transport, the facts of the case unfolded in the summer of 2012. A farming company hired the trucking firm to deliver chickens to a private poultry farmer in Oklahoma. Hunt in turn hired a driver named Troy Ford to help deliver those chickens.
On the day of the scheduled delivery, a number of friends and relatives were present on the poultry farm to help the farmer unload the chickens. One of those was a man named Jimmy Hill.
Once at the farm, Ford was operating a machine similar to a forklift that was loaded with chickens. The vehicle had a blind spot to the front right as he was driving into the chicken house. The farmer and a friend were helping to direct Ford as he pulled forward. However, as he did so, Hill crossed paths with the vehicle.
The farmer shouted at Ford to stop, but it was too late. The truck ran over Hill, fracturing his ankle.
The following month, Hill had to undergo surgery for his ankle. However, after his release from the hospital, the site of the surgery became infected. He was re-admitted to the hospital and had to undergo a second surgery to remove the infected tissue. He was then transferred to a long-term acute care facility and treated with antibiotics. However, while he was in that unit, he contracted fungal sepsis and died in December 2012.
His adult son filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the trucking company, alleging it was vicariously liable for the negligent actions of its driver. Plaintiff also later added the farming company that hired Hunt to the action. The poultry farmer was not named as a defendant.
A month before trial, Hunt defense lawyers learned Ford had been fired by the company several months earlier. Although Ford was listed as a defense witness, his earlier video deposition was not submitted as evidence before the trial. Defense lawyers scrambled to make sure Ford would still testify. To their dismay, he refused, even though there was a court subpoena.
Defense paralegal went to his house 120 miles away to try to convince him to come, but he refused.
On the first day of trial, defense lawyers told the judge of the issue. On the second day, counsel moved for a bench warrant to arrest Ford for contempt or, alternatively, to allow them to submit his video deposition.
The court called Ford to try to cajole him into coming, but he did not answer. The judge refused to issue a bench warrant, citing the fact that Ford lived 120 miles away, he was probably not home (as a long-distance trucker) and such an ordeal would be disruptive to the trial. Judge also refused to allow the video deposition because defense failed to include it in the deposition designations.
Jurors returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff, finding Hunt 98 percent liable and the poultry farmer (a non-party) 2 percent liable. Of the $3.4 million in damages, plaintiff was awarded $3.332 million.
Defense requested a remittitur (reduction of damages), citing failure of court to compel Ford to appear as a prejudicial error. The court refused.
Defense then asked for a second trial, citing again the court’s refusal to send a U.S. marshal after Ford. The court denied this request, and this decision was affirmed on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.
There was no question Ford disobeyed two subpoenas and that his actions determined whether Hunt was responsible. However, the appeals court held that trial courts have an inherent authority to manage each trial, and the judge had given sound reasoning for his ruling.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Hill v. J.B. Hunt Transport, Feb. 25, 2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
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