742 F.2d 883 (5th Cir. 1984), 83-3513, Armstrong v. Farm Equipment Co.

Docket Nº:83-3513.
Citation:742 F.2d 883
Party Name:Doris Bray ARMSTRONG, Individually, as Administratrix of the estate of Larry Armstrong and as tutrix of her minor children, Kenneth Douglas Armstrong and Sharon Ann Armstrong, Plaintiffs- Appellants, v. FARM EQUIPMENT COMPANY and the Hartford Insurance Company, Defendants-Appellees.
Case Date:October 01, 1984
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Page 883

742 F.2d 883 (5th Cir. 1984)

Doris Bray ARMSTRONG, Individually, as Administratrix of the

estate of Larry Armstrong and as tutrix of her

minor children, Kenneth Douglas

Armstrong and Sharon Ann

Armstrong,

Plaintiffs-

Appellants,

v.

FARM EQUIPMENT COMPANY and the Hartford Insurance Company,

Defendants-Appellees.

No. 83-3513.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

October 1, 1984

Chaffe, McCall, Phillips, Toler & Sarpy, Kenneth W. Jacques, Kenneth J. Servay, New Orleans, La., for plaintiffs-appellants.

Page 884

Daniel A. Webb, Michael J. Navitsky, New Orleans, La., for Farm equipment co.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Before REAVLEY, JOHNSON, and JOLLY, Circuit Judges.

JOHNSON, Circuit Judge:

On December 6, 1980, Larry Armstrong, a thirty-five year old resident of Jones, Louisiana, was crushed to death when the tractor he and his farm hands were jump starting leaped into gear and pinned him against his pickup. The decedent's wife, Doris Armstrong, filed this diversity action on her own behalf and on the behalf of the decedent's minor children, Kenneth and Sharon, alleging survival and wrongful death causes of action against Farm Equipment Company, seller of the tractor, Deere & Company manufacturer of the tractor, and their respective insurers. Plaintiff settled with Deere & Company prior to trial but proceeded to a jury verdict against Farm Equipment Company. In response to special interrogatories, the jury found Farm Equipment negligent and assessed its fault at fifty percent and, further, found the decedent and his farm hands negligent and assessed their combined fault at fifty percent. The jury assessed damages at $50,000 for the decedent's survival cause of action, $100,000 to each of the surviving children for their wrongful death causes of action, and $300,000 for the widow's wrongful death recovery, for a total damage award of $550,000. However, over plaintiff's objection, the trial court reduced the survival and wrongful death recoveries by fifty percent due to the decedent's and his farm hands' combined negligence and rendered judgment in favor of the plaintiff in an amount totalling $275,000. Plaintiff appeals to this Court alleging that the trial court erred by allowing the jury to impute the decedent's employees' negligence to the decedent and that the trial court erred by reducing the surviving widow's and children's wrongful death recoveries in proportion to the decedent's and farm hands' combined negligence. This Court affirms the district court's judgment.

I. FACTS AND COURSE OF PROCEEDINGS

The Armstrongs own a north Louisiana farm consisting of approximately 375 acres. In addition to the Armstrong's farm, the decedent, Larry Armstrong, leased additional farm land, which brought the total acreage of his farm in 1980 to over 1,000 acres. As part of his farming operations, decedent employed several farm hands, including two brothers, Dennis and L.C. Martin.

Armstrong purchased the used John Deere tractor that caused his death in April 1977 from defendant, Farm Equipment. However, Armstrong did not operate the tractor himself, leaving the day-to-day farming activities to his farm hands. This left Armstrong free to tend to the administrative functions of the farm.

The testimony of L.C. Martin, decedent's employee, indicated that from the time the tractor was delivered to Mr. Armstrong's farm, it would start in gear since the neutral "out-off" switch had been rendered inoperative prior to the tractor's delivery. Although L.C. Martin was aware of this defect, he did not inform Mr. Armstrong since, in his opinion, there was no need to bother Mr. Armstrong as he never operated the tractor. While L.C. Martin was operating the tractor in May or June 1980, an axle broke and damaged the rear gear box and gear shift linkage. Farm Equipment was called to pick up and repair the tractor and, several days later when the tractor was repaired, Farm Equipment redelivered the tractor to the Armstrong farm.

After the repair of the axle linkage, however, the tractor allegedly did not shift properly; it occasionally would jump into gear from the neutral position and was hard to shift. L.C. Martin testified that while the tractor was assigned to him, it jumped into gear on about three occasions. Larry Armstrong, however, was never told by L.C. Martin that the tractor jumped into gear, again due to Mr. Martin's belief that

Page 885

there was no need to tell Mr. Armstrong since he never operated the tractor.

At one time during farm operations, L.C. Martin assigned the John...

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