By: David Baugher December 29, 2016
A broken piece of outdoor equipment that left a hunter injured has produced a $400,000 award in favor of the plaintiff after a reduction for allocation of fault. “This was a jury comprised significantly of members who either themselves or have members of their family who hunt regularly,” said Timothy Monsees of Monsees & Mayer. “Many of them hunt from tree stands.”
Plaintiff Dennis D. Pitman was attempting to secure the base of a tree stand when one of the ratchet straps snapped, leaving him to tumble 30 feet to the ground, according to his petition. Pitman filed suit in federal court after his arm was lacerated in a degloving injury during the September 2011 fall.
The straps themselves were an aftermarket item sold to replace the original ones that came with the stand, Monsees said. “The essential contention was that the straps, which are obviously sold for outdoor usage, had no formulation which would inhibit deterioration in outdoor conditions,” Monsees contended. “They’d fail very quickly. There are no real instructions or warnings accompanying the sale that make that clear.” The plaintiff sued Ameristep Corporation and Tahsin Industrial Corporation USA, which were involved in distributing the straps. The department store that sold the product was originally named but was later dismissed from the suit.
Monsees said that ultraviolet light – a component of sunshine – can degrade the straps over time, and the defendants had performed little or no testing or analysis to determine how environmental factors might impact the straps. “[The defense] claimed there was no practical way to do that,” he said. “They had quality assurance testing, which was basically limited to a random sampling of straps to make sure they were manufactured in accordance with their tensile rating.” He said his client contended the strap in question had only been in use for a few months before it failed. However, Monsees said the defendants argued that his client’s straps were three years old based on their own scientific analysis.
“Their second tier [of defense] was essentially a comparative fault or sole cause analysis that my client was not wearing a full-body safety harness at the time of the breaking of the strap and that, had he done so, he would not have fallen out of the tree,” Monsees said. The straps were rated to hold 1,000 pounds, he said. “We didn’t dispute that’s basically how they came out of production,” he said. “We just said that strength eroded at a progressive rate once exposed to the environment.” Monsees said he was aware of other cases in which straps of the same type had broken but the judge in the case limited his ability to introduce those incidents except to attempt to impeach the previous opinions of the defense experts on cross-examination.
He said his own expert argued that any failure to identify environmental degradation as a hazard would render the product unreasonably dangerous. Monsees said he did not introduce any evidence of loss of income in the matter and there was little or no dispute regarding the nature and extent of the injury, though he indicated the defense argued the plaintiff had made a good recovery.
The jury ultimately found $800,000 in damages but placed 50 percent responsibility for the accident on the plaintiff and 50 percent on the defendant. “We were so pleased the jury recognized the problem here and compensated him for it,” said Brent Lance of the Lance Law Firm, which was co-counsel with Monsees. “It is a great outcome for a great guy.” Daniel J. Bruntrager of Bruntrager & Billings was listed as lead counsel for the plaintiff Pitman. He did not return a call requesting comment. Milton Karfis and Bishop Bartoni of Clark Hill were listed as representing the defendants. They did not return a message requesting comment.
Verdict (Net allocated amount): $800,000 (reduced to $400,000 by allocation of fault)
Type of Action: Product liability
Venue: U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri
Case Number/Date: 2:14CV00085ERW/Nov. 17, 2016
Judge: E. Richard Webber
Plaintiff’s Experts: Chris Ferrone, Chicago, (mechanical engineer)
Defendants’ Experts: L. J. Smith, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, (hunting safety); Marc Zupan, Baltimore, (materials); George Saunders, Severna Park, Maryland, (mechanical engineering)
Allocation of Fault: 50 percent plaintiff/50 percent defendant
Last Pretrial Demand: $350,000
Last Pretrial Offer: $60,000
Caption: Dennis D. Pitman v. Ameristep Corporation; Tahsin Industrial Corporation USA
Plaintiff’s Attorneys: Daniel J. Bruntrager of Bruntrager & Billings, St. Louis; Timothy W. Monsees and Phillip Reed Martens of Monsees & Mayer, Kansas City; Brent Lance, The Lance Law Firm, Cottleville
Defendants’ Attorneys: Milton Karfis and Bishop Bartoni of Clark Hill, Birmingham, Michigan