The family reunion for the owners of the Jelly Belly Candy Company quickly turned tragic with one of the world’s most recent deaths by a World War II-era tank.
Candy is the day job of Herman Rowland Sr., chair of the board at the Jelly Belly Candy Company. But the jelly-bean mogul has made a passion project of restoring old military vehicles at the American Armory Museum, aka the “Tank Barn,” his personal showroom in Fairfield, California.
It was at the Tank Barn that Dwayne Brasher—husband to Rowland’s daughter, Jelly Belly CEO Lisa Brasher—ran over a man named Kevin Wright with a tank last August, orphaning his two daughters, Wright’s family says in a new lawsuit. The suit, filed on May 11 in a California Superior Court, accuses Rowland and Brasher of negligence resulting in wrongful death, one that deprived the Wrights of a family provider.
Brasher, Rowland, and Jelly Belly did not answer requests for comment by press time.
Tanks are difficult to drive—especially without experience. And operating a World War II-era 1944 M5 tank is presumably even more difficult.
“Defendants had a duty to train and supervise the persons operating the M5 tank and to lend their World War II vehicles only to individuals with sufficient knowledge to drive them so as to ensure they would be operated safely,” the lawsuit claims.
But Brasher, Rowland’s son-in-law, had no tank training, the suit alleges. To compensate for his lack of experience, Brasher allegedly asked Wright—a contractor employed to help maintain and move the Tank Barn’s vehicles—to hop aboard the antique war rig.
“Said defendants had a further duty to ensure that the vehicles had proper safety features such as seat belts and hand rails which could be used by passengers to ensure their safety during use,” the suit reads.
Rowland was in the process of modifying one of his antique tanks to fire Jelly Belly candies, according to Fairfield, California’s Daily Republic newspaper. He had already reconfigured a cannon to shoot bags of jelly beans, as The Wall Street Journal reported in 2014.
But despite his penchant for sweet upgrades, the Jelly Belly chair had allegedly neglected to add safety features to his tanks. “Yeah, there are no seat belts,” Peter Alfert, a lawyer representing Wright’s father and two daughters, told The Daily Beast.
On that fateful day, Wright took a seat facing backwards next to Brasher—a position that allegedly prevented him from seeing upcoming bumps in the road. Alfert says this seating arrangement should have been a red flag for Brasher. “An operator of a vehicle shouldn’t drive it if anyone’s in a dangerous position on it,” Alfert said.
That didn’t stop the pair from setting out from the Tank Barn and piloting the retired weapon down a path and over a low embankment installed “for the express purpose of creating an obstacle for vehicles such as the tank to navigate while being driven on the Premises,” the lawsuit alleges.
During the joyride, Wright was thrown from the tank, run over by the vehicle’s right track, and killed.
Immediately after the incident, the Rowland family announced that it was seeking “intensive counseling” for anyone who witnessed Wright’s death, the LA Times reported. But three members of Wright’s family say they are still keenly suffering the loss.
Wright was the only surviving parent to his two daughters, ages 22 and 24, their mother having died in 2009. While both young women were financially independent of Wright at the time of his death, the pair are suing for their father’s funeral costs and loss of care. Wright’s father, George, meanwhile, depended on Wright’s income, according to the lawsuit.
“George is 80 years old, and he was dependent on [Wright]. They lived together and the adult son took care of his father,” Alfert said. “There’s an economic component where the father now has to go out into the marketplace and pay for someone to provide services his son had previously provided.”
This is the first reported incident at Rowland’s Tank Barn, where the Jelly Belly don once told The Wall Street Journal that he “plans to take customers out for rides.” But it’s hardly the first time a World War II tank has been involved in a fatal accident in the 21st century. Two Oregon residents were killed in October when they drove a vintage tank to a firing range, where it exploded.
“Our hearts and prayers go out to his family,” Rowland told the LA Times in August. “We will do everything in our power to help them get through this enormous loss... Many of my family members have been inconsolable since the accident. There are no words to describe the grief we are experiencing.”