Courtroom Confusion as ‘Hearing' Becomes Trial Overnight Perplexing Widow

by George Waldon  on Monday, Sep. 2, 2013 12:00 am  

Mary Louise Rieger Bullock outside of Rieger Farms, a property in Stuttgart that is now the center of a lawsuit. (Photo by Jason Burt)

Two years after getting sued, Mary Louise Rieger Bullock is still waiting to have her day in court. The chain of events behind the case has left the widowed matriarch of Rieger Family Farms frustrated and has her new lawyer considering all options.

Bullock expected she would get to testify in a dispute that arose after the 2010 sale of her farm near Stuttgart. But her non-jury trial came and went on March 26 in a flash of courtroom confusion that Bullock blames on her lawyer, David Carruth of Clarendon, and which Carruth blames on imprecise language from the judge.

“I went there for a hearing and got pulled into a trial,” Carruth said. “When I got to the courthouse, I learned this would be a trial on the merits, and the judge said I should’ve understood that.”

Circuit Judge David G. Henry ruled in favor of Stephen Hoskyn, who farmed Bullock’s property on a lease basis before the $2.5 million sale and continues to farm the 713 acres under the ownership of the buyer: Bear Slough LLC, led by Witt Stephens Jr. (See chronology at the end of this story.)

Henry awarded the full $25,148 judgment sought by Hoskyn. Maybe the outcome would have been different if she and other planned witnesses could have testified about the disputed lease provision.

Maybe not.

Regardless, Bullock said she could’ve accepted the decision if she had gotten to tell her side of the story and call her witnesses. But she didn’t. No one took the stand on her behalf because of Carruth’s hearing-trial confusion.

Planned depositions and discovery weren’t accomplished before the trial, and a request for a jury trial didn’t get filed in time by Carruth either.

At a post-trial meeting at Bullock’s house later on March 26, Carruth couldn’t explain why he hadn’t stayed on top of the case enough to know a trial date was set, not a hearing date.

“I asked him, ‘What have you been doing all this time?’” said Tommy Drew, Bullock’s farm manager, who was supposed to be a witness at the trial. “He wouldn’t answer me.”

Drew said Carruth described it as “the worst mistake of my career.”

Carruth this year became a Monroe County District judge, a part-time position that allows him to maintain his law practice. Drew wondered if his new duties as a judge had distracted him from Bullock’s case.



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