Two Farm Workers Receive Justice for their Injuries; Up to $1 Million

Two separate farm workers who were severely injured on their jobs filed lawsuits. One case settled for $1,000,000 and the second farm worker, was awarded $650,000 by a jury.

A former farmworker and farm machinery operator has won $1 million from three companies after his left arm was badly mangled in a machine that processed harvested watermelons.

Robert Ramirez Lopez, 57-years-old, was only on the job for three days in September 2009 when the accident occurred. Lopez was tapping a watermelon that had become stuck in the machine when his arm was crushed in the dumping mechanism.

Lopez was very fortunate that he was able to receive such a large settlement due to the fact that he was employed by a company, other than the company who owned the machine. Had Lopez been employed by the company that owned the machine, this case would have become a worker’s compensation claim and Lopez’s benefit would have been limited to $135,000.

Lopez was employed by a farm labor contractor, VMJ Professional Services, at a produce cooling facility, owned by organic grower Double D Farms, located fifteen miles northeast of Coalinga.

The case went before a mediator and two weeks before the trial was scheduled to start, was settled.  According to the settlement, TMJMB Holdings, formerly known as Timco Worldwide, designed, manufactured and maintained the machine that injured Lopez. They will pay $905,000 of the total settlement, VMJ Professional Services $90,000 and Double D Farms $5,000.

It was reported that Lopez began working for VMJ on September 24, 2009 at Double D’s produce cooling facility. He was working around a machine that was part of the watermelon harvesting process.

During the automated process, watermelons “routinely became lodged or ‘stuck’ in the conveyor belt area after having been dumped by the machine” the lawsuit stated.

Lopez estimated it happened about 50 times a day. Each time, he would tap the melon with his hand to dislodge it.  During his third day on the job, however, at the same he tapped the melon, a coworker activated a “dumper” on the machine, which crushed his left arm.

Lopez required immediate surgery to repair his crushed arm. He is left with limited use of his left arm, and will most likely not be able to perform manual labor in the future. This severely limits his earning potential since he only has the education of an 11th grader.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC) the agriculture industry ranks among the most hazardous for workers in the country. Farmers are at an extremely high risk of both fatal and non-fatal injuries, as more than 475 deaths relating to farming accidents are reported annually. The leading sources of fatal farming injuries are related to machinery, motor vehicles and drowning accidents. Nearly 250 Americans suffer injuries every day, causing them to lose time and wages.

The second case involves a 17-year-old farm worker, who suffered leg and knee injuries in a farming vehicle accident.

A $645,388 jury verdict was returned in favor of Colton Brooks. Most of the county in which the suit was heard is in the farming industry.

In July 2011, Colton Brooks was working as a volunteer at Stanton Orchards. His left leg was crushed when a 4,000 pound cherry catcher he was operating, lost control and rolled down a hill. The machine is a specially designed automotive tractor operated by a single driver.

Brooks argued that he did not receive proper training by the farm’s management. It was also alleged that the brakes on the 30-year-old cherry catcher had not been properly maintained.

Gary VanEe, a retired Michigan State University agricultural engineering professor, who has strong experience in farm equipment hydraulics, testified for the plaintiff at trial. He inspected the machine and testified that the brake system would have stopped on the hillside when the brake was pressed if it had been properly maintained.  He further explained that the brakes gave the wheels more power because of their placement.

During discovery, it was learned that the machine had broken free and rolled downhill twice before in 2010. One of those incidents was with the 19-year-old son of the orchard’s mechanic operating it. The mechanic testified at trial that he told the orchard owners that the machine should be replaced after the 2010 harvest. He also said during his testimony that a cage should be welded around the seat to protect the occupant if the machine did roll downhill again.

The jury allocated 15 percent of fault to Brooks. The verdict was broken down as follows:  $134,888 in past and future medical expenses and $510,500 in past and future non-economic damages.

Unfortunately, many farm workers are uneducated and when they experience severe injuries as a result of negligence on the job, they are faced with major problems supporting themselves and their families in the future.  Negligence played a part in both of these cases.  Do you feel that the outcome was fair in each of these cases?  Feel free to comment on this blog post.

For more information, contact one of our Gacovino Lake attorneys at 1-800-246-HURT (4878).

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