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Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Mich. farm denied new trial after being found liable for falling cardboard boxes


By Charmaine Little | Oct 4, 2018

LANSING, Mich. (Legal Newsline) – On Sept. 27, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s ruling in which a jury found a company liable for two negligence theories in an incident where a man was injured on the property.

Defendant Blue Harvest Farms LLC had appealed the Ottawa Circuit Court's order denying its motion for a new trial, judgment notwithstanding the verdict and remittitur.

"We conclude that the trial court erred when it allowed plaintiff to proceed to trial on both a premises liability and ordinary negligence theory. However, it was permissible to proceed on the premises liability theory, the jury instructions on res ipsa loquitur and spoliation as to premises liability were proper, and it was appropriate for the jury to find Blue Harvest liable on the premises liability claim. Therefore, a new trial is not merited. In all other respects, we affirm," the court ruled.

The trial court jury awarded the plaintiffs, John and Ailene Pugno, $358,288.98 in their case against Blue Harvest Farms. They sued after John Pugno, who worked as an air-compressor technician, was on Blue Harvest’s farm to inspect a malfunctioned air compressor in 2014. While there, two bundles of cardboard boxes fell on Pugno, causing injuries, including a broken hip and the need for emergency hip replacement surgery.

During the initial phases of the lawsuit, John Pugno decided to amend his complaint and sue for liability and ordinary negligence. The jury said Blue Harvest was responsible for both. 

Blue Harvest filed a motion for a new trial, JNOV (judgment nothwithstanding the verdict), and remittitur, saying the trial court shouldn’t have allowed the res ipsa loquitur (the idea that the happening of accident indicates negligence) and spoliation instructions.

Blue Harvest also said the trial court shouldn’t have denied its request for specific jury instructions, and pointed out remittitur (a reduction of the amount the plaintiffs were awarded) was necessary considering the jury didn’t point out John Pugno had already been cleared to go back to work.

Blue Harvest’s argued that the trial court erred in denying its motion for summary disposition “because plaintiff’s claim sounded exclusively in premises liability, there was no genuine issue of material fact for a jury to decide the premises liability issue, and the trial court should not have allowed the claim to proceed on the basis on res ipsa loquitur because the doctrine is inapplicable to premises liability claims,” according to the opinion.

The appeals court did agree with the argument concerning the premises liability but was unmoved by the other points.

While Blue Harvest said it was due a new trial because the lower court denied its emergency motion to adjourn just before trial in hopes of getting the plaintiff’s doctor to take the stand, the appeals court disagreed with this argument too. The court said Blue Harvest failed to prove it experienced injustice because it already had the medical records and John Pugno never called his doctor to testify. Considering this, Blue Harvest wasn’t denied any chance to cross-examine the witness because the doctor never took the stand.

As for Blue Harvest’s argument that its owed partial JNOV or remittitur because the jury gave the plaintiff $100,000 despite him being cleared to go back to work, the appeals court sided against the company once again. Even though he was cleared, John Pugno said he was physically and mentally unable to go back to work. He said he also had to retire, despite planning to work another two years, because of the incident. He proved that his annual income was about $100,000 before the accident.

Justice Thomas Cameron authored the opinion. Chief Justice Christopher M. Murray and Justice Anica Letica concurred.

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