A 911 operator asked Jarrad Seibert whether he had a belt so he could apply a tourniquet to the leg of Ricardo Garza, who had just been partially pulled into a piece of forestry equipment used for mulching trees.
“It’s all the way up to his hip and waist, there’s nothing you can do,” a distressed Seibert replied. “Oh, my God. I can’t believe this. Oh, my God.”
A Harris County jury heard a recording of that Oct. 27, 2017, phone call as trial began Thursday morning in a case where the Garza family — Ricardo’s widow and two adult sons — is seeking $500 million in damages from Bobcat of Houston, which sold the equipment, and its parent company, Clark Equipment Company, which does business as Bobcat Company and manufactured the skid-steer loader used in this case.
A skid-steer loader 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 Seibert, was outfitted with a Fecon-branded bull hog and was being used to clear some pine trees and brush from the Garza family’s weekend property in Waller County that they intended to make a retirement home.
As attorneys for Bobcat of Houston and its parent company both told jurors during opening statements Thursday: The accident that killed Garza was inarguably tragic, but the blame doesn’t lie with Bobcat.
It was operator error.
Seibert had exited the cabin of the skid-steer multiple times that morning to clear mulch away from the air intake of the machine to prevent a fire from starting, the defense lawyers said. 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 bull hog didn’t have a rotor brake, though some models do.
Seibert was also responsible for keeping people 300 feet away from the machinery while in use.
But he did neither, and his “continued failure to do what he was supposed to do” was his fault as well as his employer’s, attorney Adolfo “JR” Rodriguez Jr., who represents Bobcat of Houston, told the jury.
“[Garza] never should have been within a football field” of the skid-steer and bull hog, Rodriguez said. “It turns trees into mulch. It’s powerful equipment.”
Garza had been watching Seibert work, drinking a mug of coffee, when he came over to the machinery while Seibert was clearing mulch and brush off the back of the skid-steer.
At 8:35 a.m., while the rotor was still slowly spinning, Garza reached to help remove the debris from the front of the machine.
His pant leg came into contact with the teeth of the rotor.
“And when he leaned in, it caught the upper part above his ankle. And then it severed his leg,” Seibert testified by deposition. “As soon as it grabbed him, I jumped off and ran over here to see if maybe I could come and grab him or do whatever I could do. He held onto the bar, and the blades kept spinning after they severed his leg. And 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.”
Chrysta Castañeda told jurors that from his vantage point Garza wouldn’t have been able to see if the blade was still rotating.
“Garza’s right leg was amputated immediately, and the bull hog chewed up his spine and back, exposing his kidney, ribs and scapula,” the family alleges in a fourth amended petition. “His jaw was broken.”
Castañeda said it would not be disputed in this case that had the bull hog been outfitted with a break, Garza would still be alive.
“If there’s a brake, we’re not here,” she said. “No brake, Rick Garza is flayed alive.”
The Texas A&M graduate and Navy officer who worked on nuclear submarines and later found success as a petroleum engineer and expert witness was flown to Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston.
He died six hours later.
“Too much blood loss,” Castañeda said. “Not enough skin to hold the blood in his body.”
John E. Tyrrell of Ricci Tyrrell Johnson, who represents Bobcat, explained to the jury that the parent corporation doesn’t bar its dealerships 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, he said.
But the company makes clear that only Bobcat-branded attachments are “approved” to be used with 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, Tyrrell said.
In this case, Bobcat of Houston sold the Bobcat-branded skid-steer to Seibert’s employer, JaDM Inc., in 2013, and it sold the company the Fecon-branded bull hog four years later, Tyrrell said.
“Plaintiff’s case against Bobcat is that Bobcat should have controlled the sale,” he said, noting the timeline. “Does that make sense?”
“Mr. Garza got too close to the rotor,” he said. “It’s tragic… but it’s not a complicated accident.”
The family is bringing claims for negligence, gross negligence, products liability and wrongful death.
Harris County District Judge Cory Don Sepolio is presiding over the trial that’s expected to last three weeks.
According to court records, the Garza family has already filed and settled another lawsuit stemming from the incident against the land-clearing company that owned the equipment, JaDM Inc., and its employee and the operator of the skid-steer on the day of the incident, Seibert.
The Garza family is represented by Chrysta Castañeda and Nichole Michael of The Castañeda Firm.
Bobcat of Houston is also represented by 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 also represented by and Clyde O. “Chip” Adams IV of Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani.
The case number is 2019-69076.