Butler Kahn recently obtained a $2,000,000 settlement in a wrongful death case involving a farm worker who was pinned between a peanut trailer and a pickup truck. The decedent was helping his employer connect the tongue of the peanut wagon to the trailer hitch of the truck, when his employer accidentally hit the gas pedal. The truck suddenly accelerated in reverse, pinning the decedent between the truck tailgate and the peanut trailer.
The peanut trailer and pickup truck
Facts of the Farming Accident
October 18, 2021 began like any other workday for our clients’ late father. He met his employer at his shop and discussed their work planned for that day, and then the pair went to pick up an empty trailer to be loaded with peanuts in nearby Fitzgerald, Georgia. After the trailer had been loaded with up to 14,000 pounds of peanuts, they began to hitch the trailer to the truck when tragedy struck.
Our clients’ father was standing behind the truck so that he could connect the trailer tongue to the truck’s trailer hitch. His employer suddenly accelerated backwards and slammed into the peanut trailer. Our client’s father was pinned between the truck and trailer, and died at the scene as a result of his injuries.
Excerpt from the investigating law enforcement officer’s report
Exceptions to the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act
In many cases involving employees who suffer personal injuries or wrongful death on the job, the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act provides the exclusive remedy for claims against the employer. Employers are immune from other lawsuits or claims in return for providing workers’ compensation coverage to their employees, even if the employee’s injury is the employer’s fault. This means that unless a third-party was responsible for the employee’s injury or death, the victim or victim’s family cannot recover damages for pain and suffering or for the “full value of the life of the decedent.”
Butler Kahn determined that either of two exceptions would apply to our clients’ case, thus allowing our clients to bring a wrongful death claim against their father’s employer. First, “farm laborers” are exempt from coverage under the Workers’ Compensation Act, O.C.G.A. § 34-9-2(a)(2). Second, an employer must have at least three employees “regularly in service” in order to be covered by the Workers’ Compensation Act. In this case, it was clear that our client’s father met the definition of a “farm laborer,” and it also appeared that he was only one of two employees on the small family farm.
Butler Kahn filed a lawsuit on behalf of the decedent’s two young adult sons against the employer who caused the collision. Because the decedent was not married at the time of his death and was survived by his two sons, one or both of our clients had to be appointed as the administrator of their father’s estate in order to bring a wrongful death claim. Butler Kahn was able to assist our clients with this process before filing the lawsuit.
Defendant’s Story Changes After Lawsuit Filed
We filed the case in the Superior Court of Ben Hill County (see copy of complaint). Once a lawsuit had been filed and lawyers hired by the insurance company got involved, the defendant’s story changed. According to the written discovery responses that we received from the defendant’s attorneys, the defendant’s pickup truck was at “a complete stop” when he “suddenly felt a jolt from behind to the rear bumper and tailgate of his F-150.” The defendant testified that the peanut trailer rolled forward and crushed our client’s father underneath one of the trailer’s front tires. The defendant denied having accelerated backwards or telling law enforcement anything about his foot slipping off the brake pedal, as indicated in the officer’s report.
Investigating the Accident
We went to work investigating the case. The accident had occurred just outside Fitzgerald in a farming community where most people knew each other, so not everyone was willing to talk with us. To make matters more challenging, most of the witnesses who had been present in the field where our clients’ father was killed either worked for the defendant (i.e., the driver of the truck) or his family. They weren’t exactly excited to talk with lawyers bringing a case against their employers.
We made some progress, however. After a series of phone calls and knocking on some doors, we were able to reach one person who had been in the field that day. He was willing to sit down with us, so in the yard in front of his house, we interviewed him and prepared a witness statement. He said he had not seen the accident because he was facing the other way at the time, but he did confirm the accuracy of our transcript of his call with the 911 operator, in which he had said that the decedent was “pinned between a peanut wagon and” a pickup truck. He also confirmed that the decedent was alive for a period after the accident (which shows pain and suffering). Click here for a copy of the witness statement.
We also hired an accident reconstruction expert and arranged for the defendant’s truck to be inspected for “event data recorder” or “EDR” data. It was unclear whether any such data would even exist, because vehicles equipped with an EDR only record data if an impact is sufficiently severe to trigger the EDR. In our case, the defendant reported feeling a “jolt.” If that jolt was enough to trigger the EDR, then the EDR would show whether the truck’s gas pedal or brake pedal was being pressed during the crucial seconds just before the collision.
Wrongful Death Settlement for Insurance Policy Limits
At the same time, the insurer wanted to settle the case for its full insurance limits. The insurance company had initially told us that the limits were $1,000,000, but after we filed the lawsuit, the insurer told us that the limits were actually $2,000,000 and they wanted to pay that full amount to settle the case. We talked with our clients. We told them that the download could prove that we were correct about how the collision happened, which would be great, but there was also some risk – because in the unlikely event that the EDR download showed that the defendant was telling the truth, we would have no case at all.
Our firm was willing to keep litigating the case. We thought that the EDR download would show that we were correct and that the defendant was not being truthful. We also believed this was that rare situation in which the insurance company had not handled the claim correctly in the early stages, such that with some hard work and patience, we could collect more than the policy limits. But the decision rested with our clients – it was their case, not ours. They decided that a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush. Despite our firm’s willingness to keep going, our clients instructed us to settle the case for $2,000,000. That’s what we did.
We ended up with two happy clients.