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Masters v. Hesston Corporation

May 31, 2002


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Western Division. No. 99 C 50279--Philip G. Reinhard, Judge.

Before Ripple, Manion, and Evans, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Evans, Circuit Judge

Argued FEBRUARY 28, 2002

David Masters lost part of his right arm and severely injured his left hand in a hay baler accident. He sued the manufacturer, asserting products liability and negligence. The district judge held the products liability claim barred by Illinois' statute of repose and granted summary judgment to the manufacturer on the negligence claim after excluding the testimony of Masters' proffered expert. Masters appeals from both decisions.

In 1996 David Masters was a sales representative and part-time farmer living in McHenry County, Illinois. Masters wanted to buy a hay baler to help him with his farm chores, and he was interested in what seems to be known as a "Large Round Hay Baler," one that makes cylindrically shaped bales nearly 6 feet tall and weighing upwards of 1,500 pounds. These bales have a more dense exterior than smaller, rectangular bales. Because of that density, a farmer can store them outside without fear of spoilage in bad weather. This saves the hassle of loading and unloading rectangular bales in covered areas.

The hay baler market is not one most people--especially city slickers--are familiar with, so we'll take a moment to describe some of the products the industry has produced. The Vermeer Manufacturing Company introduced large round hay balers to the American market in 1971. Vermeer could not produce enough balers to meet consumer demand, so it licensed its patent to a number of manufacturers, including the defendant here, Hesston, which produced balers using the design.*fn1 Hesston called its model the 5600.

The 5600 used a "feed roll" system. Here's how it works. The baler is attached to a tractor, which the farmer steers over "windrows" (big lines) of hay that have been raked. As the tractor moves forward straddling the windrows, tines at the lower front of the baler direct the hay upwards to the feed intake area, which has two rollers. Separated by about a quarter of an inch and rotating in opposite directions, the rollers compress the hay and yank it back and upwards to an inside chamber. There, the hay runs into a rubber belt that reverses the hay's course, generating a rotating motion that forms a circular bale. Tension on the belt increases as the bale expands; more belt is released until a full-sized bale forms. At that point, the operator pulls a rope. The rope is connected to a twine tube, which swings to the intake area. In theory, the twine should enter the feed rolls and then the baling chamber, wrap around the bale and be automatically cut. A control on the tractor allows the bale to be "puked out" (apparently this is a hay-baler term, and a graphic one at that, as it was used by Mr. Masters at several points during his deposition) the baler's rear. Hesston introduced its 5600 model in May 1974 and sold it until May 1975. It sold another model with feed rolls, the 5800, until around 1980.

In the fall of 1974, Sperry-New Holland offered another type of baler, its Model 850. The 850 did not feed the hay into the baling chamber with feed rolls. Instead, it guided the hay onto "a moving steel platform conveyor with saw-tooth like protrusions" that fed the crop into the baling chamber. Moreover, instead of using rubber belts, the 850 used "a continuous system of horizontal steel slats, secured on either end by sprocket-driven chains, to form the bale." New Holland patented this design and sold the 850 until 1987.

One last baler. In the spring of 1977, Hesston introduced an above-ground baler without feed rolls. The model, named the 5500, was known as an "open throat" design. We have been unable to find any schematics of this model in the record, but for present purposes it suffices to emphasize that the open throat design did not use feed rolls to get hay into the baling chamber. Hesston switched completely to the open throat design by 1980 and has licensed it to competitors. New Holland adopted the open throat design in 1987.

Now back (actually forward) to Masters. As we mentioned, in 1996 he began shopping for a large round hay baler. Masters knew the general differences between feed roll and open throat designs. The open throat design was out of his price range, the high end of which was $2,500. New machines, which ran in the range of $15,000, were also not an option. Masters ultimately bought a Hesston 5600 at an auction for $950; Hesston had built and sold the machine some 22 years earlier in the first half of 1975.

Masters bought the machine in August of 1997 and noticed two problems when he tried to use it. First, the twine would not feed properly through the feed rolls. Masters did not know what was causing this problem, but it was later determined that the twine tube had been wrenched off and then rewelded to the baler after its initial sale but before Masters bought it. As a result, the tube was misaligned and did not swing properly to the intake area.

The second problem occurred when Masters shut off the power if there was a full bale in the chamber. When this happened, the bale would not rotate when power was resumed. This problem apparently occurred because the bale was too heavy, causing the belt to slip on the rollers. Thus, the bale could not be wrapped and "puked" from the machine. Masters handled the twine problem by dismounting his tractor, tying the twine to some hay, and then tossing the hay into the feed rolls. But because of the power problem, Masters had to leave the baler running when attempting this maneuver.

On September 27, 1997, Masters was using the baler for the third time. In the early afternoon, after forming a full bale, he encountered the twine-feed problem. He stopped the tractor's forward movement and approached the baler (with the power still on). He then pulled twine from the twine tube and tied the end to some hay, which he attempted to toss into the feed rolls. The twine got caught, and the momentum of the toss carried Masters' right hand towards the feed rolls. The result was a disaster: his right arm, up to the mid-forearm, was quickly pulled into the machine. Masters tried to brace his body against the machine. He also attempted to put his shoes in the rollers to clog them but was unsuccessful and injured his left hand in the process. Realizing that he could extricate himself only by breaking his right arm off, Masters did just that by seesawing his arm back and forth.

Masters filed suit against Hesston in Illinois state court (later removed), alleging, as we said earlier, strict products liability (count I) and negligence (count II). The district court, with Judge Philip G. Reinhard at the controls, granted summary judgment to Hesston on count I, holding that the claim was barred by Illinois' statute of repose. With regard to the negligence ...

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