Christopher Leritz Wins Wrongful Death Defense Verdict
On November 15, 2013, Christopher Leritz won a defense verdict for his client, CWF Wood Products, Inc., in a double wrongful death case in Howell County, Missouri Circuit Court. CWF was insured by Pennsylvania Lumbermens Mutual Insurance Company.
In 2007, CWF Lumber contracted with independent logger Kenneth Shomaker to perform all logging operations, including transportation of cut timber from the forest to CWF’s Mill.
As part of the timber sale contract between the United States Forest Service and CWF, CWF was required to name a purchaser’s representative who had full authority to act on behalf of CWF with regard to the timber harvesting operations. At the time of the accident at issue, Shomaker was a purchaser’s representative on behalf of CWF.
On September 20, 2007, Timothy and Shelley Blunkall were killed when their pickup truck was struck head-on when Shomaker’s logging truck and trailer loaded with approximately 80,000 lbs of raw timber crossed the centerline of the highway and drove into the Blunkalls’ lane. The Blunkalls left three minor children. The Blunkall children were the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Plaintiffs alleged that the logger Shomaker was an agent of CWF and CWF was thereby liable for the negligent acts of Shomaker. Plaintiffs also alleged that CWF was negligent in its selection and hiring of Shomaker as Shomaker operated his truck without the required commercial license and operated his truck in an unsafe condition. The court allowed plaintiffs to submit both theories of recovery to the jury.
Plaintiffs argued that the requirements of the Forest Service contract gave CWF sufficient control over the logger to make the logger CWF’s agent, as the logger had full authority to act on CWF’s behalf with the Forest Service. Plaintiffs also argued that CWF hired a dangerous and incompetent logger who did not have the skill and qualifications to safely operate an 80,000 lb log because the logger was cited for 17 separate licensing and equipment violations by the Highway Patrol after the collision. Defendant argued that CWF did not control, nor did it have the right to control, the physical activities of the logger and his employees, as required by Missouri law to create an agency relationship. Defendant also argued that the local custom and practice was that loggers and truck owners themselves make sure they were properly licensed and their equipment was in good working order.
The jury deliberated over three hours before returning a defendant’s verdict on all counts.
Because of prior set-offs and judgments, the jury was to consider liability only, and damages were set at $1,000,000. The plaintiffs’ last demand was $950,000 and defendant’s last offer was $250,000.
Christopher Leritz is a St. Louis, Missouri attorney who practices insurance, commercial and tort litigation and trial work in Missouri and Southern Illinois.