A federal jury agreed that one of two defendants was negligent in causing an accident that left a hunter with a shattered leg after a fall from an improperly erected deer stand, but decided the injured man assumed the risk of climbing it and awarded him nothing.
Hall Booth Smith partner Jeffery Saxby, who with associate Wayne Satterfield represented the company that sold the 16-foot stand to the retailer, said the last plaintiff’s demand to settle the case before trial was for $750,000.
The only defense offer to settle was for $2,000 or $2,500 in 2015, said Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith partner Brantley Rowlen, who represented the retailer along with associate V. Ashley Waller.
Plaintiffs attorney Steven Pickens of Lawrenceville’s Mahaffey Pickens Tucker said he will file an appeal.
“We thought we presented a compelling case and that it might go our way,” said Pickens in an email. “Mr. Rowlen and Mr. Saxby are both skilled advocates and did excellent jobs for their clients.”
According to the lawyers and trial documents, plaintiff Daniel Roberts and two friends were hunting one weekend in North Georgia and decided to go buy another deer stand.
One of the men, Lee Summey, went to the Tractor Supply Co. in Chatsworth, but they only had a display model left.
Summey bought the display stand, which did not have a box, manual or other instructions and returned to his friends in the woods.
“Summey told them he didn’t have the manual,” said Saxby. “They went ahead and completed the assembly the way they thought was correct.”
The stand included two “criss-cross” nylon straps that were supposed to be used to secure it to a tree, but the men didn’t know how to attach them, he said.
“They used one as a brace and left the other off completely,” he said.
The trio raised the stand against a tree with one holding the ladder and the other holding a stabilizer bar while Roberts climbed up.
“When he got past a certain point, the top of the stand began to pull away from the tree,” said Saxby. “Our plaintiff jumped off—probably about 8 feet off the ground—and shattered the bones in one leg.”
According to his filings, the bones in Roberts’ right leg snapped below the knee and “tore through his skin.”
Roberts, whom Saxby said is in his 40s, underwent two surgeries, was out of work for three months and is likely to need another surgery to remove the hardware.
There was no evidence alcohol was involved, Saxby said.
Roberts filed negligence claims in 2014 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia against Tractor Supply Co. and New Buffalo Corp., which imported the tree stand and sold it to the store.
Trial began Feb. 20 before Judge Richard Story.
According to plaintiff’s pleadings, New Buffalo was negligent in marketing a product when it knew the instruction manual might be lost and for not having the straps affixed to the top of the stand.
Tractor Supply was accused of negligently selling the stand without the instructions or warning that the straps had to be affixed to the stand to prevent an accident.
Defense pleadings say New Buffalo simply imported the stand and sold it and had nothing to do with its design or manufacture.
Tractor Supply argued the instruction manual was easily available on its website and noted that—two weeks after the accident—Summey and the other man watched a demonstration on YouTube and were able to assemble and use the stand without any problem.
The retailer also said Roberts ignored warning labels affixed to the tree stand instructing users to follow the assembly instructions.
Both defendants argued Roberts assumed the risk of climbing the tree stand and was responsible for his own injuries.
The plaintiffs brought in Marietta accident investigation specialist Jeff Hyatt to testify, Saxby said.
“Even he testified that, if used in accordance with the manual, the stand is fit for use,” he said.
The defense did not call any experts to testify, he said.
Rowan said the defendants were essentially united at trial.
“It was pretty cordial,” he said. “The plaintiffs had a manufacturing defect claim they abandoned midtrial, so that made it straight negligence for both of us. But there wasn’t any finger-pointing; everybody was pretty united in the knowledge that, when these gentlemen took on this project, they assumed the risk.”
Saxby said Roberts claimed damages for roughly $124,000, which included about $90,000 in past medical bills, plus additional funds for the expected future surgery, and $24,000 in lost wages.
At closing, he said, Pickens didn’t ask for a particular figure but “sort of hinted around $2 million in damages and pain and suffering.”
After a weeklong trial, the jury took about six hours to deliver a defense verdict.
The jury foreman told Saxby they decided about 15 minutes into deliberations that his client, the importer, had no liability.
“They found that Tractor Supply was negligent but that Roberts had assumed the risk of injury,” he said.