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Johnson v. Dale C.

Supreme Court of Wyoming

March 24, 2015

STEVEN A. JOHNSON and KAREN JOHNSON, Husband and Wife, Appellants (Plaintiffs),
v.
DALE C. and HELEN W. JOHNSON FAMILY REVOCABLE TRUST, BALLARD W. JOHNSON as Co-Trustee, ARTHUR W. JOHNSON and STEVEN A. JOHNSON as Successor Co-Trustees, Appellees (Defendants)

Page 884

Appeal from the District Court of Lincoln County. The Honorable Marvin L. Tyler, Judge.

Representing Appellants: Michael D. Allen and James K. Sanderson of Sanderson Law Office, Afton, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Allen.

Representing Appellees: John D. Bowers and Spencer L. Allred of Bowers Law Firm, PC, Afton, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Bowers.

Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL, KITE, DAVIS, and FOX, JJ.

OPINION

Page 885

DAVIS, Justice.

[¶1] This appeal arises out of a dispute between Steven and Karen Johnson, Appellants, and the Dale C. and Helen W. Johnson Family Revocable Trust, Ballard W. Johnson, as co-trustee, and Arthur W. Johnson, as successor co-trustee (the Trust), Appellees. It concerns injuries sustained by Steven Johnson when he fell off a haystack while helping his 82-year-old father feed cattle on property owned by the Trust. The Trust moved for summary judgment, claiming that Appellants' negligence action could not survive as a matter of law because the Trust owed no duty to them and that there was no evidence that any duty was breached. The district court granted summary judgment, holding that the Trust owed Steven Johnson no duty of care. We find that even if the Trust owed Steven Johnson the duty to exercise reasonable care, the negligence claim cannot survive because Appellants produced no evidence of a breach of that duty. We therefore affirm.

ISSUE

[¶2] The issue presented by Steven and Karen Johnson is whether the district court erred in granting summary judgment.

FACTS

[¶3] On March 23, 2010, the day he was injured, Steven Johnson (Mr. Johnson) went to the ranch property owned by the Dale C. and Helen W. Johnson Family Trust to help his 82-year-old father, Dale, feed cattle. Mr. Johnson was raised on the ranch and grew up helping his father with ranching operations, including feeding cattle. He continued to help out on the ranch after he became an adult and started his own construction business. He was fifty-seven years old on the date of the accident, and so he had decades of experience by that time.

[¶4] He testified that the family had used the same method of feeding that he used on the date of the accident since the early 1980s. They customarily loaded hay from a stack of bales onto a sleigh, which would then be used to transport the hay to the cattle.

[¶5] On the day he was injured, Mr. Johnson first harnessed the team of horses and " hooked them up" to the sleigh. Because his father Dale had trouble walking, Dale drove his four wheeler from the house to the sleigh and then got on to drive the team to the hay so that it could be loaded. The sleigh was approximately eight feet wide and sixteen feet long, and it had been used on the ranch for as long as Mr. Johnson could remember.

[¶6] After the sleigh was parked next to the hay bales, the person loading them would pull the string on one bale in the stack in an effort to cause several bales to fall down onto the sleigh at once. Bales would be removed from the stack by working from the top down, removing the higher layers first. After the bales at the front of the stack were removed, the person loading had to climb onto bales in the remaining lower layers to reach the bales in the higher layers further back in the stack.

[¶7] On the date of the incident, March 23, 2010, Mr. Johnson was standing on a layer of hay bales that was approximately four feet above the sleigh. The following illustration shows the stacks of bales and sleigh.

Page 886

[¶8] The bales above the line had already been removed and fed to the cattle, and Mr. Johnson climbed up to that level to pull on the bales higher up in the next layer. He reached up to pull the string on one of the higher bales to bring the hay down for loading. When he pulled on the string, it broke. Mr. Johnson fell off the haystack and landed on the back of his head on the bed of the sleigh. He suffered an unstable fracture of the second cervical vertebrae.

[¶9] Appellants sued Appellees in the district court for Lincoln County, claiming that they were negligent in a number of respects, including failing to provide a safe workplace, failing to warn of unsafe conditions, and failing to provide safety training or equipment. The Trust moved for summary judgment, which was granted. The court held that Mr. Johnson was not an employee of the trust, but that he was instead acting more as an independent contractor. It concluded that there were no genuine issues of material fact as to whether the Trust exercised sufficient control or undertook safety duties which imposed a duty of care to protect him from hazards incidental to feeding the cattle.

[¶10] The court also analyzed the case from the premises liability perspective, and found that Mr. Johnson was an invitee, and that the Trust had a duty to protect him from dangers it could have discovered by the exercise of reasonable care. It concluded that the Trust had no way of knowing that the string would break when Mr. Johnson pulled on it, and that it therefore had no duty to protect him from that hazard. It also held that Appellants raised no genuine issue of ...


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