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Pearson v. Dillingham

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Valdosta Division

December 28, 2017

MELISSA PEARSON, on behalf of the Estate of JAMES RAY TURNER, KACEY BURNS, as natural guardian and parent of JESSIE TURNER, a minor, Plaintiffs,



         This case arises out of the untimely death of James Ray Turner. Defendant Harold Dillingham hired Turner in the summer of 2014 to perform odd jobs on the Dillingham's farm in Alapaha, Georgia. Turner died when the tractor he was operating overturned and pinned him in a body of water. Plaintiff Melissa Pearson, Turner's mother, brought this lawsuit on behalf of Turner's estate, along with Kacey Burns, as the parent of Jesse Turner, one of Turner's surviving children, against Defendants Harold and Marteel Dillingham to recover for the loss of Turner's life. Plaintiffs allege that Turner's death is the direct result of Mr. Dillingham's failure to properly train Turner on the operation of the tractor.[1]

         Before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 16). After reviewing the pleadings, briefs, affidavits, and other evidentiary materials presented, and with the benefit of oral argument, the Court determines that there are genuine issues of material fact that must be resolved by a jury. The Court accordingly DENIES Defendants' motion. Also before the Court is Plaintiffs' Motion to Exclude the Opinions of H. Horton McCurdy, Ph.D (Doc. 17) and Defendants' Motion to Exclude Plaintiffs' Expert Witness Burke Murph (Doc. 14). For the reasons discussed below, the Court DENIES Plaintiff's motion to exclude and GRANTS Defendants' motion to exclude.


         The undisputed facts are as follows:

         Around July 2014, Defendant Harold Dillingham (“Mr. Dillingham”) hired Decedent James Ray Turner (“Turner”) to pull pigweed from his property located at 1326 Open Door School Road, Alapaha, Berrien County, Georgia.[2] Once that task was accomplished, Mr. Dillingham requested Turner complete other odd jobs. On October 20, 2014, the date of the accident, Mr. Dillingham instructed Turner to accompany James Frye (“Frye”), a long-time employee of Mr. Dillingham, to collect net wrap from one of Mr. Dillingham's fields. Mr. Dillingham told Frye to attach a trailer to a John Deer 2030 tractor and to drive the tractor out to the field.

         Around 4:00 p.m., Turner informed Frye that he needed to use the restroom. Rather than handling his business outside, as was customary, Turner unhooked the trailer and set off on the tractor toward Mr. Dillingham's shop, which was approximately 1.2 miles away from the field where Turner and Frye were assigned to work for the day. Turner never returned to the field.

         The last person to see Turner on October 20th was Tommy Clark, an acquaintance of Mr. Dillingham's who was on his way to make a delivery to a neighboring farm. Clark observed Turner in the field behind Mr. Dillingham's shop “sliding the tractor around, playing” somewhere around 4:30 p.m. (Doc. 16-10, p. 8; Doc. 16-11, p. 9). Turner pulled up alongside Clark's truck, and Clark asked Turner to help him unload something from his truck. Clark then told Turner, “[t]here's been a lot of people killed doing what you're doing. I said, you don't play on a tractor. It has a high ground clearance and, I said, it'll turn over on you. I said, please do not do that anymore.” (Id.). Turner said, “okay, ” then got back on the tractor and headed in the opposite direction. (Id. at p. 9-10).

         Clark proceeded up the hill to Mr. Dillingham's shop to rinse out the bed of his truck and to speak with Mr. Dillingham and his son Dave. Clark informed Mr. Dillingham that he had seen Turner engaging in horseplay on the tractor. About twenty minutes passed before Clark returned to his truck and started home. As he proceeded down the road, Clark saw the tractor overturned in the pond. He called to the Dillinghams, who immediately came to the scene. At first, no one saw Turner. Then, Mr. Turner noticed a tattooed arm that he identified as Turner's. Dave Dillingham called 911 at 6:11 p.m. The Dillinghams and Clark quickly worked to extract Turner from underneath the tractor, attaching a chain to the tractor and then using a lull to lift the tractor enough to pull Turner's body to the shore. According to the Dillinghams and Clark, Turner's body had already turned a purplish color, and he had no pulse.

         Both the Berrien County Sheriff's Office and the Georgia State Patrol responded to the 911 call. Georgia State Trooper Rodney Harding took pictures of the scene. Trooper Harding observed “that there were roadway marks showing what appeared to be he had taken a right-hand turn too fast and, because of that, kind of pushed out of the curb and ran into the ditch, causing him to roll the tractor.” (Doc. 16-11, p. 8). He also noted that the tractor was in high gear when it was removed from the water. Based on his experience and training investigating accidents, Trooper Harding deduced from the evidence that Turner was driving the tractor recklessly at the time of the accident. (Id. at p. 19).

         Turner's body was taken from the scene of the accident to the coroner's office. Deputy Harding was present when the coroner drew blood from the corpse. Trooper Harding preserved the evidence and submitted it to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (“GBI”) for drug and alcohol testing. Trooper Harding also preserved evidence removed from Turner's pockets, including a pack of cigarettes, some rolling papers, a lighter, a handful of peppermints, and a small bag containing what appeared to be marijuana. (Id. at 11-12). The GBI lab later tested the blood obtained from Turner. The blood alcohol test revealed that Turner had an ethyl alcohol result by gas chromatography of 0.184 grams per 100 ml. The toxicology test showed that Turner was positive for marijuana.


         Summary judgment is appropriate when “the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and . . . the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). A genuine issue of material fact arises only when “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). When considering a motion for summary judgment, the court must evaluate all of the evidence, together with any logical inferences, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id. at 254- 55. The court may not, however, make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. Id. at 255; see also Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000).

         III. ...

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