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Johnson v. T & T Farms, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

April 9, 2019

OSHAUN JOHNSON APPELLANT
v.
T & T FARMS, INC. F/K/A HICKORY HOLLOW FARMS INC. APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 10/20/2017

          SIMPSON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT TRIAL JUDGE: HON. EDDIE H. BOWEN

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: JOHN D. SMALLWOOD

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: RAYMOND PATRICK TULLOS

          BEFORE CARLTON AND J. WILSON, P.JJ., AND TINDELL, J.

          CARLTON, P.J.

         ¶1. Oshaun Johnson appeals the Simpson County Circuit Court's order granting summary judgment in favor of T&T Farms Inc.[1] On appeal, Johnson asserts that the circuit court erred by finding that Johnson failed to establish prima facie cases of both negligence and liability, and that the circuit court erred in deciding material issues of fact reserved for a jury.[2]

         ¶2. After our review, we find no error. We therefore affirm the circuit court's order granting summary judgment in favor of T&T Farms.

         FACTS

         ¶3. In October 2013, Johnson was employed as a night shift clean-up crew member at Polk's Meat Products Inc. Johnson alleged that on October 10, 2013, while cleaning a machine at Polk's, his left hand and arm became caught in the exposed chain drive of the meat grinder. Johnson stated that his hand remained stuck in the meat grinder until he was eventually discovered by co-workers. As a result of his injuries, Johnson suffered multiple hand fractures, which required surgery and skin grafts.

         ¶4. In December 2014, Johnson filed a complaint against T&T Farms, Robert Reiser & Company Inc. (Reiser), John Does 1-5, and John Doe Entities 1-5 asserting claims of negligence, breach of warranty, and strict liability. In his complaint, Johnson alleged that Polk's purchased a used meat grinder from T&T Farms, which was distributed by Reiser. (Reiser was later dismissed from the case by agreement of the parties.) Johnson claimed that T&T Farms made modifications to the meat grinder, including removing safety devices associated with the chain drive, and that T&T Farms then sold the meat grinder to Polk's in an altered, dangerous, and defective condition. Johnson asserted that as a result of the defective meat grinder, he sustained severe injuries to his left hand and arm, lost wages, and loss of earning potential. Johnson sought compensatory and punitive damages in the amount of five million dollars.

         ¶5. On June 12, 2017, T&T Farms filed a motion for summary judgment asserting that no genuine issue of material fact existed and that Johnson failed to demonstrate the essential elements of the claims set forth in his complaint. T&T Farms explained that Polk's came into possession of the meat grinder at issue when Polk's purchased T&T Farms in its entirety. Along with the meat grinder, Polk's acquired all assets and liabilities associated with T&T Farms. T&T Farms asserted that T&T Farms ceased to exist almost fifteen years prior to Johnson's injuries and that Johnson failed to demonstrate any duty that T&T Farms owed him. T&T Farms argued that, although it entered into a contract with Polk's for a business acquisition, Johnson failed to demonstrate that his relationship with Polk's-fifteen years following the execution of the contract-was one contemplated by the original parties for purposes of liability and duty. T&T Farms further asserted that pursuant to the standard provided by the Mississippi Products Liability Act for failure-to-warn cases, Johnson's claims failed because Johnson did not demonstrate that the ordinary user or consumer would have required a warning or instruction from T&T Farms. See Miss. Code Ann. §11-1-63(a) (Rev. 2014).

         ¶6. T&T Farms also argued that prior to Polk's acquisition of the meat grinder, T&T Farms asserted that it performed regular maintenance and cleaning of the machine, but at no time did it change, alter, or modify the meat grinder. T&T Farms claimed that Johnson failed to disclose any evidence showing that T&T Farms modified or altered the meat grinder while it was under the control of T&T Farms or that T&T Farms engaged in any negligent behavior that caused Johnson's injuries.

         ¶7. On August 11, 2017, Reiser also filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming that Johnson failed to offer any proof that Reiser breached any duty owed to him. Reiser stated that it purchased the meat grinder at issue in 1975 and then sold the meat grinder to Morton Frozen Foods in 1976. Reiser maintained that it neither designed nor manufactured the meat grinder at issue, nor did it make any modifications or alterations to the meat grinder. Reiser asserted that since 1980 it has not received any information relating to the location, use, or condition of the meat grinder. Reiser also argued that Johnson was barred from prevailing on his claim for breach of warranty by the applicable statute of limitation, [3] and Johnson was precluded from recovery against Reiser as an innocent seller.

         ¶8. On October 9, 2017, the circuit court held a hearing on both of the summary judgment motions. At the hearing, Johnson's counsel explained how Johnson received his injuries: while Johnson was at work cleaning a machine, one of Johnson's co-workers opened the cover to the chain drive on the meat grinder without Johnson's knowledge. Johnson turned, and his arm went into the chain drive of the meat grinder. Johnson's counsel claimed that Terry Windham, the owner of T&T Farms who sold the business to Polk's in 1998, made it "relatively clear" in his deposition testimony that machines like the meat grinder at issue are usually manufactured with an electronic interlock feature which shuts the machine off when someone opens part of the machine that exposes moving parts. Johnson's counsel argued that although Windham was aware of interlock features on other machines, he failed to inform Polk's that the meat grinder at issue did not have an interlock feature. Johnson's counsel clarified that Windham did not "necessarily [possess] a duty to warn, but a duty to . . . [update] the machine" and install an interlock feature on the meat grinder.

         ¶9. After hearing arguments, the circuit court stated: "I don't see the defect here. I don't see the failure to warn as an issue. The machine was used for so many years after [acquisition from T&T Farms]. Polk's had constructive or actual knowledge that if you left that door open something was going to happen." The circuit court ultimately determined that "after looking at all these documents[, ] . . . I don't see where there's any genuine issue of material fact for a jury to determine. I'm going to grant summary for T&T Farms[.]" The circuit court also recognized that Johnson and Reiser reached an agreement dismissing Reiser from the lawsuit.

         ¶10. On October 20, 2017, the circuit court entered its order granting summary judgment in favor of T&T Farms. That same day, the circuit court also entered an order granting summary judgment in favor of Reiser.

         ¶11. On October 31, 2017, Johnson filed his notice of appeal from the circuit court order granting summary ...


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