Alabama farmer sues John Deere for ‘right to repair’

https://www.al.com/news/2022/01/alabama-farmer-sues-john-deere-for-right-to-repair.html

By Sarah Whites-Koditschek | swhites-koditschek@al.com

Trinity Dale Wells is a cattle farmer on a small farm of about 150 acres he leases in Franklin County in northwest Alabama. Wells has owned John Deere tractors his whole life. Last year the stop engine light came on his tractor.

“All it was was some water in a little old sensor wire and he walks around there and dried it out and took it off and put it back on,” Wells said in an interview with AL.com

He has always gotten his tractor repaired at a local dealer, so he was surprised to learn his only repair option was to call John Deere to adjust proprietary software on the machine, a repair he says took a John Deere technician less than three minutes but cost over $600.

Wells on Wednesday filed suit against John Deere in federal court in Huntsville, alleging the company’s proprietary tractor software is creating a monopoly that’s unfair to small farmers. His lawyers are asking the court to declare it a class action suit and say they hope to represent all affected in Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi.

“This is at its heart an antitrust case about the inability for farmers to find anybody to work on their tractors outside of a John Deere dealership because of a certain proprietary software that’s been installed on them,” said Wells’s attorney, Eric Artrip.

A spokesman for John Deere declined an interview, telling Al.com in an email on Friday that the company does not comment on pending litigation.

According to Artrip, the lawsuit is the result of efforts from a growing national “right-to-repair” movement that has resulted in legislation being introduced in statehouses around the country to protect people’s ability to independently repair hi-tech products from cell phones to farm equipment.

The complaint alleges John Deere has created a monopoly in violation of the federal Sherman Antitrust Act by stifling competition in the lucrative tractor repair market, forcing small repair shops to close by creating proprietary software and driving up prices for small farmers in need of tractor repairs.

“What that means is farmers now have to pay a technician to work on their farm or they have to haul their tractor to a dealership, sometimes forty miles away, sometimes several hundreds of miles away, to get them repaired because they can’t repair them themselves and they can’t get anybody who is not outside of a dealership or not in a dealership to work on them,” he said.

The lawsuit alleges that in the early 2000′s, John Deere took steps to winnow repair providers, requiring businesses to become either repair or sales entities but not both. Lawyers for Wells argue that following the filing of right to repair legislation in multiple states, John Deere committed to end its practice of making software proprietary but has not followed through on that commitment.

A separate federal class action lawsuit against John Deere was filed in North Dakota on Wednesday. A similar suit was filed in Illinois earlier this month.

To Wells, the cattle farmer, paying more than $600 for a small repair was unfair. A larger repair could represent a serious setback and eat away at profits for a small business.

“You’re pretty much at John Deere’s mercy, whatever they want to charge you, if you can’t fix it yourself, and with these new tractors you can’t,” he said.

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