Last week, a Payne County jury awarded a Stillwater woman $5 million in a civil suit that followed her husband's death in a tractor accident.
The jury found Deere & Company, the manufacturer of John Deere tractors, to be responsible for the May 25, 2014, death of James Beall, age 38, of Stillwater, when the tractor he was driving rolled over, trapping him underneath. Shylah Beall, his widow, was represented by Smolen Law, a Tulsa firm.
The case involved a John Deere 3038 E Compact Utility Tractor with a 305 front loader that was sold to the Bealls by P&K Equipment, Inc., of Stillwater. The tractor and an optional front loader were assembled at the Deere plant in Georgia and then shipped to P&K Equipment.
Shylah Beall's suit claimed that the tractor was unsafe and had not been properly configured by either the factory or the dealership before she and her husband took delivery. Throughout the lawsuit, Deere denied the accusations.
Beall's attorneys said Deere’s manufacturing failed to add additional weight to the rear of the tractor to counterbalance the almost 700-pound front-end loader, before it left the Deere plant in Georgia. The weight was also not added at the local dealership.
Representatives of Deere & Company said the tractor was not defective or unreasonably dangerous and suggested Beall may not have been wearing his seatbelt.
During the trial, the representative for Deere & Company admitted that ballast is supposed to be added to the rear and tires of the tractor. In the instruction manual it said, "To prevent death or bodily injury from tractor loader roll-over, the required amount of ballast must be added to the tractor."
The proper ballast wasn’t added before Beall bought the tractor, and Beall's attorneys argued that evidence shown during the trial suggested that if the weight had been added as recommended, the tractor wouldn’t have rolled over.
Carlton Hearn, a product safety engineer for Deere & Company, testitfied that the tractor was supposed to be configured ready for use at the dealership, and there is a checklist dealers go through to ensure a tractor is ready for use.
Among the checklist items was the installation of ballast to to prevent rollover and injury. At first, it seemed the Hearn was suggesting that it would be up to the consumer to do whatever needed to be done with the tractor, according to a transcript provided to the News Press by Smolen Law.
"So let me ask you this, so when James and his dad, Clyde, showed up to P&K and they – and he had this dream of having his own business and he had this 16-acre property that he needs help mowing," attorney Donald Smolen asked. "You think that they should have thought to themselves, 'Hey, even though I'm buying this thing brand new from John Deere and it's come directly from the factory all set up, I bet it's in an unreasonably safe condition and that I need to go through and make sure that they did everything they are supposed to. Is that the way that Deere sells its equipment?'"
"I'm sorry. What way?" the rep asked.
"Well, you've got here that in order for this tractor to be safe, and properly weighted, and properly ballasted there are certain things that have to be done to the tractor when used with a loader right?," Smolen replied. "I mean, that's what we have been talking about. And these things that are listed, the consumer, James Beall, Clyde Beall, me whoever, the consumer can't even do that, they can't even install the rear tire weights according to Deere, right?"
"It's recommended that they are done by a Deere dealership," Hearn replied.
On Jan. 16, a Payne County jury found after 27 minutes of deliberation that "by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant, Deere & Company, acted in reckless disregard for the rights of others." They awarded Shylah Beall $3 million in actual compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages.
In a statement released Thursday, Shylah Beall said that her main goal was to hold the company accountable and make sure nothing like this happens in the future.
“I don’t want James’ death to be in vain,” she said. “I want proper safety protocols followed in the future.”
Attorney Donald E. Smolen, II, said the compensation will help Shylah raise her young son, who is now left without a father.
“No amount of money will take the place of a loving husband and father, but these funds can help Shylah and her family in other ways,” he said. “Our greatest hope is we can prevent this from happening to another family. We are pleased the jury decided in our favor.”