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Ricardo Gonzalez worked at AC Enterprises, a dairy operation in Tipton that was owned and run by Carl Brasil. The night before the accident, Hettinga Transportation, Inc, a company based in Pixley, had delivered the hay by truck to the dairy; Hettinga employees had unloaded and stacked the hay upon delivery.

In the early morning hours of April 29, 2017, Gonzalez, as part of his job duties, dislodged bales of hay from this haystack to feed the cows at the dairy. After Gonzalez downed a few bales of hay from the stack other hay bales toppled onto him, causing serious injury.

Gonzalez received workers’ compensation benefits from Zenith Insurance company, and also filed a civil action against Hettinga for negligence alleging they delivered and negligently stacked hay bales at AC Enterprises. Zenith Insurance Company filed a complaint-in-intervention.

The case proceeded to jury trial. When Gonzalez and intervenor rested after presenting their cases in chief, Hettinga moved for nonsuit. The trial court granted Hettinga’s motion for nonsuit as to plaintiffs’ and intervenor’s negligence claims, on grounds that expert witness testimony on the standard of care for stacking hay was required but not presented in plaintiffs’ and intervenor’s cases in chief.

Plaintiffs Gonzalez as well as intervenor Zenith Insurance Company,appealed the trial court’s ruling. The judgment of nonsuit was reversed and the matter was remanded for the trial court to conduct a new trial in the unpublished case of Gonzalez v. Hettinga Transportation -F083948 (March 2024).

Hettinga’s principal argument is that this case is one of professional negligence, rather than ordinary negligence.  More specifically, Hettinga argues this matter implicates a professional standard of care and that expert testimony was required to establish the applicable professional standard of care. The Court of Appeal disagreed.

Big bales are massive weighing approximately 1,100 pounds or half a ton per bale. When stacked four-high, the bales comprise 4,000 pounds or two tons of hay. Thus, the question is whether in stacking such bales, a reasonably prudent person would have stacked the bales on their narrower three-foot edges when they could have alternatively stacked them on their flat or wide, four-foot edges, especially as stacking the bales on their four-foot edges would result in a lower, overall stack height of 12 feet while stacking the bales on their three- foot edges would result in an “extreme” overall stack height of 16 feet. The bales also could have been stacked in the typical configuration and Brasil’s preferred configuration, that is, three-bale-high/flat, which would have resulted in a very manageable (by all accounts) overall height of nine fee.

Frank Ricardo, Carl Brasil, and Steve Hettinga, all of whom were knowledgeable about stacking hay, indicated that big bales should never be stacked on their narrow, three-foot edges, for reasons of safety and stability, especially when higher stacks were at issue. The Court of Appeal reviewed their testimony, and that of many other witnesses and concluded that the record contains evidence from knowledgeable co-workers which a jury could properly find that Hettinga did not exercise due care in stacking the hay upon delivery to AC Enterprises. Plaintiffs and intervenor presented evidence, in the form of the respective testimony as to the manner in which Hettinga stacked the bales delivered to AC Enterprises on April 28, 2017.

Here, the record taken as a whole, does not indicate that stacking haybales was a highly specialized profession – requiring extensive education and training and involving tasks of great complexity – such that the issue of negligence pertaining to hay stacking would entail a professional standard of care and require expert testimony thereon.”

Finally, Hettinga argued that plaintiffs and intervenor were required to, but did not, “establish that the medical services Mr. Gonzalez received were ‘attributable to the accident, that they were necessary and that the charges for such services were reasonable.’ ”

The jury heard that Gonzalez made a claim for payment of workers compensation benefits, Zenith was the insurer for AC Enterprises, and Zenith paid Gonzalez’s medical bills. The jury was provided with a detailed accounting of the expenses that Zenith had paid and heard testimony that the total amount paid by Zenith was $881,649.56. Under Labor Code section 4600, subdivision (a), Zenith (on behalf of Gonzalez’s employer) is required by law to pay for all medical treatment “that is reasonably required to cure or relieve the injured worker from the effects of the worker’s injury.” (Lab. Code, § 4600, subd. (a).)

Accordingly, the jury could properly infer that Zenith paid $881,649.56 in medical expenses because it was obligated to do so, so as to ensure Gonzalez received all the reasonably necessary treatment for injuries sustained in the accident at the dairy.

“Under these circumstances, a showing of negligence and proximate cause would suffice to establish a claim for reimbursement of workers compensation payments made for Gonzalez’s medical treatment on account of the accident.”