A Harris County jury on Wednesday afternoon awarded $8.4 million in damages to the family of a man who died in 2017 after being partially pulled into a piece of forestry equipment in a case that had sought as much as $500 million.
But because of settlement credits and the way the jury apportioned liability for the death of Ricardo Garza — who was fatally injured by the equipment that was clearing pine trees on the family’s weekend property in Waller County — the family will likely recover only a small fraction of that amount.
Adolfo “J.R.” Rodriguez Jr. of Rodriguez Law Firm, who represents the seller of the equipment, Bobcat of Houston, told The Lawbook that the 10 percent liability apportioned to his client equates to a “take nothing judgment” when settlement credits for damages the family has already received from other defendants are taken into account.
“They were extraordinary plaintiffs,” Rodriguez said of the Garza family. “He was an extraordinary man. But even great men make mistakes and that was the gist of the way we saw it. It was a very, very difficult case.”
The Garza family sued Bobcat of Houston, which sold the equipment, and Clark Equipment Company, which does business as Bobcat Company and manufactured the skid-steer loader used in this case. They sought a maximum of $500 million in damages in court pleadings but did not request that amount, or any specific amount, from the jury during closing arguments Tuesday.
A skid-steer is a small piece of heavy machinery with arms that can connect to several dozen types of labor-saving attachments, enabling it to dig trenches, clear snow, carry dirt, mulch trees and more.
In early December, after reaching a confidential settlement agreement, the Garza family voluntarily dropped from this lawsuit defendant Fecon Inc., the manufacturer of the forestry attachment, called a bull hog, that caused Garza’s death.
The Bobcat-branded skid-steer, operated by Jarrad Seibert, was outfitted with a Fecon-branded bull hog.
The jury deliberated for about seven hours before it found Bobcat of Houston was 10 percent liable and that Bobcat had no liability for the incident. The jury assigned 44 percent liability to Seibert and his employer, JaDM Inc., 25 percent to Fecon and 21 percent to Garza.
Court records show the family previously sued and settled with JaDM Inc. and Seibert.
“The men and women of Bobcat of Houston are hardworking, genuine people who care about their customers and they were devastated to hear that somebody was killed using equipment that it had sold,” Rodriguez said after the verdict was returned Wednesday. “They certainly would never compare their own hardship to that of Garza family but it’s been disruptive and difficult and they’re certainly glad the jury rendered the verdict it did and they can put it behind them.”
Chrysta Castañeda of The Castañeda Firm, who represents the Garza family, issued a statement to The Lawbook Wednesday afternoon that the family was pleased with the award of damages “for the loss of their incredible loved one, Ricardo Garza, and hope that this case sparks change in the industry.”
Seibert had exited the cabin of the skid-steer multiple times the morning of on Oct. 27, 2017 to clear mulch away from the air intake of the machine to prevent a fire from starting. But according to manuals, labels and safety warnings, Seibert was supposed to “ground the head,” or run the bull hog into the ground to stop the rotor from spinning, before exiting.
The particular Fecon bull hog used that morning did not have a rotor brake, though some models do.
Seibert also had an obligation to keep people 300 feet away from the machinery while in use, Bobcat’s attorneys told the jury, but he failed to do either.
At 8:35 a.m., on Oct. 27, 2017, while the rotor was still slowly spinning, Garza reached to help remove the debris from the front of the machine, having watched Seibert do so several times that morning, and his pant leg came into contact with the teeth of the rotor.
As Seibert explained in deposition testimony, the machine amputated Garza’s foot immediately and severed his leg at his hip. Seibert said “every time the blades would turn, it would take a bite out of him… every time the teeth would come around, it would take a bite and throw him off. Take a bite and throw him off. Take a bite and throw him off.”
“It did that four or five times until it finally got up to his belt,” Seibert said.
Garza, a Texas A&M graduate and Navy officer who worked on nuclear submarines and later found success as a petroleum engineer and as an expert witness was flown to Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston.
He died about six hours later.
The jury was not spared details of the gruesome injuries suffered by Garza. There were posterboard-sized photographs shown to them during closing arguments, and they heard testimony from both of Garza’s adult sons who said they had to pick up pieces of their father’s body at the site of the incident after first responders had all left the scene, using a five-gallon bucket to collect what they could find.
Jurors were told that Bobcat doesn’t bar its dealerships, like Bobcat of Houston, from selling equipment made by other companies, like Fecon. The dealerships make their own business decisions when it comes to that based on customer needs.
But the company makes clear that only Bobcat-branded attachments are “approved” to be used to Bobcat skid-steers. All others are “unapproved.” The company doesn’t allow dealerships to sell unapproved attachments with Bobcat equipment, but selling them separately is permitted, jurors heard.
In this case, Bobcat of Houston sold the Bobcat-branded skid-steer to JaDM Inc. in 2013, and it sold the company the Fecon-branded bull hog four years later.
Castañeda told jurors during closing arguments Tuesday that Garza would still be alive if only the Bobcat-branded skid-steer in this case had been outfitted with an approved, Bobcat-branded bull head.
Attorneys for Bobcat of Houston and Bobcat both told jurors during opening statements and closing arguments that the accident that killed Garza was inarguably tragic, but that the blame didn’t lie with Bobcat.
It was operator error.
“Was it foreseeable to us that these men would disregard the instructions?” Rodriguez asked the panel during closing arguments. “No, it was not. This is dangerous equipment. This case is not about unapproved attachments. It’s about unsafe conduct.”
The jury deliberated for about an hour on Tuesday afternoon and returned Wednesday morning to resume, returning its verdict just before 3 p.m.
Harris County District Judge Cory Don Sepolio presided over the case that began Jan. 19 with opening statements.
The Garza family is represented by Chrysta Castañeda and Nichole Michael of The Castañeda Firm.
Bobcat of Houston is represented by Adolfo “J.R.” Rodriguez Jr., Christopher K. Rusek and Meredith B. Gerber of Rodriguez Law Firm, Scott G. Edwards and Clayton J. Callen of Hartline Barger and Christopher D. Kratovil of Dykema Gossett.
Bobcat is represented by John E. Tyrrell of Ricci Tyrrell Jonson and Clyde O. “Chip” Adams IV of Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani.
The case number is 2019-69076.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the ownership structure of the Bobcat companies. The error has been corrected.