The owner of a South Georgia farm and fertilizer company who failed to follow through on his pledge to pay $10,000 to a man whose foot was crushed when a tree fell on it was hit with a $3.5 million judgment in Coffee County Tuesday.
The judgment entered by Superior Court Judge J. Kelly Brooks came after the defendants, who never responded to the complaint, were declared in default earlier this year. It included more than $1 million for the Oliver Maner lawyers handling the case, partners Patrick O’Connor and Patricia Paul and associate Stuart Sumner, as well as $250,000 in punitive damages.
The defendant, Rhett Fussell, operates Fussell Farms in Ambrose and Fussell Fertilizer in nearby Douglas.
When reached by phone Thursday morning, a surprised Fussell said he was unaware of the judgment. The Daily Report forwarded a copy of the order by email but was unable to reach him afterward.
According to O’Connor and court filings, plaintiff Kaleb Smith, 24, was working with Fussell clearing trees downed by a storm in January 2017 when the accident happened.
“Kaleb was operating a chainsaw cutting up a big tree, approximately 80 feet, when the chainsaw got stuck,” O’Connor said.
Fussell was using a hydraulic excavator fitted with metal jaws to move the trees around and raised the tree to free the saw blade, he said.
“There was testimony that Mr. Fussell was talking on his cellphone at the time,” O’Connor said.
Fussell raised the tree several feet up when Smith signaled him to lower it slightly. Fussell apparently misunderstood and opened the excavator jaws, dropping the tree onto Smith’s foot.
Fussell and another man eventually freed Smith and “dropped him off at an immediate care center in Douglas,” O’Connor said.
The staff there sent Smith to the hospital, and he ultimately underwent three surgeries and had his left pinky toe amputated.
“He also has permanent scarring and disfigurement affecting his gait, and doctors are telling him to prepare for a hip replacement in the relatively near future,” O’Connor said.
Smith, who was employed by Fussell Fertilizer, filed a claim with the State Board of Workers’ Compensation, but the board ruled in June that he was not eligible for benefits under an agricultural worker exemption, O’Connor said.
The month before that ruling, Fussell agreed to pay Smith $10,000 “separate and apart” from any workers’ comp payments, with a 30-day window to provide the funds.
Fussell subsequently refused to pay Smith any money at all, and Smith sued Fussell, Fussell Farms and Fussell Fertilizer in July for negligence, breach of contract and punitive damages.
The defendants never responded to the complaint, and nearly two months later Smith’s lawyers filed a motion for default judgment, which Brooks granted.
Brooks convened a damages-only bench trial on Dec. 18—which Fussell also failed to attend. Brooks awarded Smith $3,541,209, including $34,581 in lost wages and $63,550 in past medical expenses, along with $74,299 in future medical expenses and more than $2.1 million in pain and suffering. Brooks also awarded $250,000 in punitive damages and $1,011,774 in attorney fees.
Asked about his prospects for collecting the judgment, O’Connor said Fussell’s companies are commercial operations but that the amount of any recovery is “uncertain.”
“We have learned a few things through property records, etc., but we don’t get to find out about assets until we get to do discovery,” he said.
O’Connor said the entire case and judgment could have been avoided if Fussell simply lived up to the agreement to pay Smith the agreed-upon $10,000.
“That’s the great irony of this case,” he said.