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Company Not Liable In Lumber Hauling Accident

December 31, 2009

A Texas timber company was found to be not liable for a fatal accident in which an unlicensed, uncertified, one-armed, octogenarian driver was allowed to haul lumber for the company, according to the Times Record.

The Arkansas Court of Appeals on Dec. 9 upheld an earlier ruling that dismissed a lawsuit against Northeast Texas Land and Timber (NTLT) of Texarkana, Texas, and its owner. Larry Wayne Russell was killed in an accident at Domtar Paper Mill in Ashdown, Ark. on Aug. 18, 2006. Russell was caught between a front-end loader and a log truck owned and operated by octogenarian B.J. Jetton. An investigation showed that the truck's brakes failed. In addition, one of the judges who dissented with the opinion stated the truck was in such an obvious state of disrepair that it used a Vienna sausage can as its gas cap.

Jetton had been hired to haul lumber to the mill by Clemente "Speedy" Martinez, who had a contract to sell and deliver materials for NTLT. But in its opinion upholding the circuit judge's ruling, the appeals court said the plaintiff never showed that NTLT knew about the condition of the truck or that Martinez was an employee of NTLT.

A circuit judge dismissed the complaints against NTLT and its owner, Perry Steitler, in March 2008.

In agreeing with that opinion, the Court of Appeals said no evidence indicated that Martinez was acting as anything other than an independent contractor in his relationship with the plaintiffs, and the plaintiffs are not subject to a claim of negligence for actions undertaken by Martinez.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge John Mauzy Pittman wrote that although the contract between NTLT and Martinez contained hold-harmless clauses, NTLT was a supervisor to Martinez, which modified their contractual relationship. He pointed out that Steitler previously revoked Martinez's privileges for failing to obtain insurance and attend safety classes.

The fact that Martinez had previously been suspended for safety reasons supported the argument that a "principal/servant" relationship had taken place between the appellants and Martinez, wrote Judge John Robbins, who concurred with the majority opinion.

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