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A Philadelphia lawyer has secured a $10.5 million damage award for a Delaware farmer who suffered burns over nearly 40 percent of his body when one of his chicken houses erupted in flames. According to the attorney, William L. Myers Jr., a 12-member New Castle County, Del., jury took more than six hours to return a unanimous verdict in the case, Pardee v. Suburban Propane, late last week. Judge Richard R. Cooch presided over the six-day trial. Jury members found the poultry company, Allen’s Hatchery Inc., 5 percent negligent; Suburban Propane and Suburban Propane Partners, 75 percent negligent; Walt’s Pest Control Inc., 15 percent negligent; and plaintiff Thomas Pardee 5 percent contributorily negligent. Pardee and his wife settled with Suburban Propane and Walt’s Pest Control, leaving Allen’s the sole defendant at trial. Myers said that settlement amounts for Suburban Propane and Walt’s Pest Control are confidential. Myers said he believes his clients prevailed because the jury weighed the cost of preventing the accident against the harm to Pardee. The attorney speculated that two factors led to the sizable verdict: “One [was] the almost total control that Allen’s Hatchery exercised over Pardee in his raising of chickens for Allen’s Hatchery,” Myers said. “And the second thing was that it would have cost Allen’s Hatchery nothing to have prevented this accident. All they would have had to do was to instruct Pardee to remove the so-called bleeder valves from his chicken houses. He would have done so, and the accident would have been avoided.” The event that led to the Pardees’ suit occurred in June 1997 when Thomas Pardee walked in to one of his three chicken houses. Myers said that within minutes, a propane fireball engulfed Pardee. The chicken houses, Myers said, are heated by small propane heaters suspended from the ceiling. Fuel for the heaters is stored outside the chicken houses, with pipes running from the tanks into each heater. Bleeder valves that permit farmers to empty air from their propane systems, thereby increasing efficiency, are attached to each heater. The bleeder valves, Myers said, can create a dangerous condition in which propane may inadvertently leak into enclosures, leading to a risk of fire. Chicken-processing companies like Allen’s have their own hatcheries, but they rely upon small farms to supply their birds. Pardee raised chickens for Allen’s, as is customary in the industry, Myers said. The relationship between the processing companies and the growers, Myers said, is that the processors determine their preferred growing methods and expect farmers to adhere to the policies. At trial, Myers said, Allen’s admitted it had known for years that chicken farmers use bleeder valves. Accordingly, it was his clients’ contention that because the valves created a dangerous condition and Allen’s knew about it while controlling the chicken houses, the producer should have instructed Pardee to discard his bleeder valves or, alternatively, warned him of their danger. The plaintiffs’ theory was that Allen’s exercised plenary control over Pardee’s farm, creating a master-servant relationship. The processing company, Myers said, controlled everything from lighting, ventilation and heating to feed and watering systems. And though Pardee owned all of the chicken house machinery, it was Allen’s Hatchery that told Pardee how, when, where and why to operate the machinery, the attorney reported. According to court documents, the Pardees alleged that the bleeder valves inside the burned chicken house were sprayed open by Walt’s Pest Control during an Allen’s-ordered “washout” of the chicken houses five days before the fire. Myers said that at trial, Allen’s stipulated to the valves being opened during the spraying and to the plaintiffs’ contention that the valves on the outdoor propane tanks were defective since after tightening of the valves, propane could still leak into the heating system. The master-servant relationship, the Pardees claimed, imposed upon Allen’s Hatchery a common law duty to provide a safe workplace. But the plaintiffs’ response to Allen’s motion for summary judgment indicates that the defendant argued that the alleged relationship was a novel theory employed to create a new duty. “It has long been recognized in Delaware that a master has a non-delegable duty to use all reasonable care to provide its employees a safe place to work, including the duty to provide safe appliances and machinery, the duty to establish safe procedures and the duty to warn,” the plaintiffs responded in court documents. The Pardees’ response to the motion for summary judgment also states that Allen’s asserted in its brief that no duty existed because the factual situation did not fall under precedent. “Allen’s argues that Pardee is not the employee of a possessor of land injured by equipment installed on the land by another company; that Pardee is not a third-party stranger injured by the acts of Allen’s agent; and that Pardee is not the employee of an independent contractor controlled by Allen’s,” the response states. “To the contrary,” the plaintiffs argued, “the duty that springs from Allen’s exercise of control over the manner and methods of Pardee’s work is the same duty previously recognized in the cases cited by Allen’s. In those cases, the courts pointed out that it was not the status of the parties as landowners, contractors, employees of independent contractors and business invitees that created the duty, but the control exercised by one party over another.” William J. Cattie III of Cattie & Fruehauf in Wilmington, Del., represented Allen’s. As to the master-servant relationship, Cattie said his client’s position was that the Pardees and Allen’s were independent contractors. The plaintiffs espoused an alternative argument to the master-servant theory, which was that even if Allen’s had not controlled Pardee’s workplace, the processing company would have been liable on the basis of its assumed responsibility for workplace safety. Responding to Allen’s motion for summary judgment, the plaintiffs listed safety factors articulated by the producer through its field supervisors. But at trial, the defense argued that Allen’s had not voluntarily assumed any safety duties. The plaintiffs’ examples of comments or requirements by Allen’s as to safety were duties the producer owed to other persons under the law, but not to chicken house owners, Cattie said. Myers said that as a result of the fire, Pardee suffered second- and third-degree burns over 36 percent of his body, including his hands, arms, back and neck. Pardee remained hospitalized for five weeks and underwent skin-grafting surgeries, transfusions, catheterizations and castings, court documents indicate. Myers said his client subsequently underwent rehabilitation and still exhibits scarring. Medical bills, for which Pardee had no insurance, totaled more than $700,000. The plaintiffs claimed Pardee would require two additional surgeries for which he has no insurance. According to Myers, the jury awarded $3 million to Thomas Pardee for pain and suffering, with an additional $2 million for scarring and disfigurement. Permanent impairment brought $1 million, medical bills $1.5 million, and property damage $21,000. Charmaine Pardee secured a $3 million award for loss of consortium. Cattie said recovery from Allen’s would be minimal given the jury’s liability apportionment. He said the total would be less than the medical expenses that were entered into evidence uncontested. Allen’s offered $100,000 before trial, Myers said. At trial, Robert A. Penza of Gordon Fournaris & Mammarella in Wilmington served as local counsel for the plaintiffs.

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