Man who won fight for life not done yet

Town of Port resident who underwent eight surgeries to reattach his hand after a 2015 farm accident sues maker of harvester he was using

USING REMOTE CONTROLS to operate a truck that grabs and cuts trees in the Town of Belgium Tuesday, Mike Melichar, who was critically injured in a 2015 farm accident, is now the owner of I.M Tree Removal. Photo by Bill Schanen IV
By 
BILL SCHANEN IV
Ozaukee Press staff

Michael Melichar, who won the fight for his life and battled to keep his hand after it was nearly severed in a 2015 Town of Saukville farm accident, is not finished fighting.

The 39-year-old Town of Port Washington resident filed a lawsuit last week in Ozaukee County Circuit Court against John Deere, the manufacturer of the self-propelled forage harvester Melichar was working on when his hand was all but cut off.

In the lawsuit, Melichar argues that Moline, Ill., based Deere & Co. and its subsidiary, John Deere Werk Zweibrucken of Zweibrucken, Germany, where the harvester was assembled, were negligent because they failed to equip the machine with a fail-safe warning system and other safety features.

Also named as a defendant in the suit is Riesterer & Schnell Inc., a Pulaski-based John Deere dealer that, according to the civil complaint, sold and serviced the harvester.

Mike Melichar was injured at about 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015, while he was cutting hay for his uncle Jim Melichar, a rural Port Washington farmer and Town of Port chairman, and the machine became clogged.

Because horns that warn the blades of the machine are still spinning did not sound, Mike Melichar assumed the cutting cylinder was not turning and reached into it, according to the complaint.

“All of sudden it grabbed my arm,” he said shortly after the incident. “It munched my hand.”

Several of the blades cut through his left arm just above the wrist.

“My hand was severed off except for some of my skin and an artery,” he said Tuesday. “Both bones and all the tendons were cut.”

Melichar was working with Bob Nash and Brent Wendt. Nash called 911 and Wendt used his belt as a tourniquet.

Within minutes, Saukville police officers arrived, then ambulances and a Flight for Life helicopter, which flew Melichar to Froedtert Hospital in Wauwatosa. 

Doctors there were blunt about the prospect of saving his hand.

“When I got there, they told me they were going to amputate it,” Melichar said.

“I pleaded with them to put it back on. I promised I’d make it work, and I’ve worked pretty damn hard to get where I am.”

Melichar said he has undergone eight surgeries to reattach and repair his hand. The most painful procedure, he said, was one in which a bone graft from his pelvis was used to rebuild his arm.

Melichar can use his hand, but he has more than scars to remind him of the accident. He said he has no feeling in three of his fingers, has limited mobility in two of them and lives with a fused ring finger.

“It’s as good as it’s going to get,” he said of his hand. 

Although doctors told him it would be years before he was able to work again, he was cleared to return to his job with Ozaukee County just seven months after the accident.

He left that job last year, built a truck with a remote-controlled arm that grabs and cuts trees and now owns and operates I.M. Tree Removal.

As for farming, “I gave it up,” he said. “But I do help out every now and again. It’s family. When they need help, I’m there.”

The Aug. 13, 2015, incident that has shaped much of his life since then was preventable, he said.

“It wasn’t an accident,” Melichar said. “It was an equipment malfunction.”

According to Melichar’s lawsuit, it is not uncommon for the harvester he was using to become clogged with hay. 

When this happens, the operator typically turns the machine off and gets out of the seat. Because the cutting cylinder continues to turn for a period of time after the machine is turned off, a warning horn sounds until the blades stop. Then the operator knows it’s safe to crawl under the harvester, open a “quick-release door” in the cutting cylinder and reach in to clear the compacted fodder, the complaint states.

This happened to Melichar several times on the day of the accident, and in each instance except the last, the warning horn sounded and he waited until it stopped before reaching into the cutting cylinder, according to the complaint.

But according to the lawsuit, the last time the harvester became clogged and Melichar shut it down, the warning horns didn’t sound. He’d encountered this on previous occasions, and in those cases there was so much hay compacted in the cutting cylinder that it stopped almost immediately so no alarm sounded. On the night of the accident, when he didn’t hear the warning, he assumed the blades weren’t spinning.

He was wrong.

“Based upon prior experience, Melichar justifiably believed that when no warning horn sounded upon leaving the seat, the drum containing the cutting knives had stopped spinning,” the complaint states.

An inspection following the accident determined the horn system had failed, according to the lawsuit.

Melichar contends that Deere & Co. knew that harvesters with quick-release cutting cylinder doors posed a danger and that later models had access doors secured with bolts as well as brakes that stopped the cylinder from spinning when the power was turned off.

In addition, the lawsuit contends, the company failed to design a system that would detect problems with the warning horn and a protocol to test and replace the system.

Riesterer & Schnell, which sold the harvester Melichar was using to his uncle and serviced it, should have tested and replaced the warning system and failed to replace the quick-release door to the cylinder with a bolted hatch assembly made available to dealers, according to the lawsuit.

Representatives from Riesterer & Schnell and Deere & Co. did not return phone calls seeking comment on the lawsuit.

Also named as a plaintiff in the suit is Rural Mutual Insurance Co., which provided workers’ compensation insurance for Jim Melichar’s company, Melichar Broad Acres, at the time of the accident and paid medical and indemnity claims for Mike Melichar.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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