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)

Carruth made an unsuccessful 11th-hour attempt to get the trial continued and changed to a jury trial.

Under Arkansas law, a motion for a jury trial must be filed at least 20 days before the scheduled trial date. Carruth made the request less than 24 hours before the March 26 trial.

He also requested a continuance of the March 26 “hearing” if the purpose of it “should be for other than a status hearing.” Both requests were made as part of a “motion for clarification of purpose of hearing and, if necessary, continuance.”

Judge Henry noted Bullock’s absence when he opened the trial. During a recess 20 minutes into the trial, Carruth called Bullock and asked her to come to the courthouse because the trial had started.

Bullock was shocked because Carruth had told her the day before that the proceeding was some sort of pretrial hearing and wouldn’t require her attendance.

“If you would have told me this yesterday, I wouldn’t have taken my medication this morning,” Bullock said she told Carruth.

Bullock said she takes prescribed medication that affects her ability to safely drive. Bullock said the sudden rush to get to a surprise trial was overwhelming. She wasn’t sure where she would need to park, so she wouldn’t have to walk too far. She also would have needed help negotiating the courthouse steps.

Bullock said Carruth advised her not to “hurt yourself getting here.” She never made it to the courthouse.

Bullock was upset with Carruth’s handling of the case and hired new legal counsel to seek a new trial and possibly appeal the case.

Jeffrey Swann of the Little Rock firm of Perkins & Trotter filed a motion for a new trial with Judge Henry but that effort was unsuccessful.

“It’s one of the most bizarre and unfortunate set of facts I’ve come across,” Swann said of the case. “The purpose for our request for a new trial was to right the wrongs of Ms. Bullock at trial. We’re considering our options on appeal, weighing the risk-reward.”

Chronology of Stephen Hoskyn v. Mary Louise Rieger Bullock

March 23, 2010
Mary Louise Rieger Bullock signs a five-year lease  with Stephen Hoskyn to farm 718 tillable acres, 3.5 miles southeast of Stuttgart as the crow flies. The annual cash rent of $105,000 also grants hunting and fishing rights to Hoskyn and use of a 40-acre reservoir, hunting pits and blinds on the land. Before the lease is finalized, Hoskyn asks to pull and rebuild an old, deep-well pump on part of Tract 2 of the farm to improve irrigation. In return for him paying for the work, 20 percent of the cost will be deducted for each year he farms the property. This agreement is included in the lease.

Dec. 16, 2010
Bullock sells her family’s farm for $2.5 million to Bear Slough LLC, led by Witt Stephens Jr., and assigns the Hoskyn lease to the new owner. However, a clause in the lease  becomes grist for a lawsuit: “In the event Tract 2 is sold during the original term, [Bullock] shall pay [Hoskyn] a pro rata amount (for the costs of improving the well) for the years remaining on the lease had it not been terminated as a result of the sale …”

Feb. 18, 2011
Hoskyn signs a one-year share lease with the new owner of the farmland. Unlike the cash lease with Bullock, the agreement with Bear Slough is a 50-50 lease.

The owner-tenant split all income derived from the farmland, including crop sales and government payments.

Production costs, which include seed, fertilizer, lime, chemicals, application services and grain-drying expenses, also are split 50-50.

Bear Slough pays all the costs for pumping water to irrigate the crops and retains hunting and fishing rights to the property.

July 18, 2011
Hoskyn sues Bullock in Arkansas County Circuit Court in Stuttgart. He claims that the sale terminated the lease and that she breached the lease agreement by not reimbursing him $25,148 after she sold the farm. The pro rata cost is associated with his out-of-pocket expenses for the 2010 well.

Bullock counters that the cash rent took into consideration Hoskyn paying for the well work and that she didn’t terminate the lease.

Her position: She agreed to reimburse him for any outstanding pro rata costs of the well during the five-year lease term in the event he was unable to farm the improved property as a result of a sale. Hoskyn is still farming the land after the sale (and continues to farm it), and Bullock alleges he is actually making more money under the new lease and suffered no financial damage from the change of ownership.

Aug. 14, 2012
Timothy Watson Sr. of Newport files a petition to withdraw as Bullock’s attorney in the case. Watson has laid a foundation for the case through an initial round of deposition and discovery. More pretrial work is planned.

Watson asks to withdraw for reasons of convenience to his client to obtain counsel closer to home and the circuit court of Arkansas County.

Aug. 15, 2012
Circuit Judge David G. Henry signs an order authorizing Watson to withdraw as attorney of record for Bullock.

Sept. 19, 2012
Bullock writes a $2,500 check for a retainer fee to hire David Carruth of Clarendon to take over her case.

Jan. 11, 2013
Circuit Judge Henry sets the nonjury trial on March 26 and notice is sent out to several recipients, including Carruth.

The wording of the notice becomes a point of controversy for Carruth: “This case is set for one-half day hearing on March 26, 2013, at 9 a.m. in the Arkansas County Courthouse in Stuttgart.”

Jan. 16, 2013
Carruth files an entry as the attorney of record for Bullock.

March 25, 2013
Carruth files a motion for clarification of the purpose of the “hearing” and if necessary a continuance. He also requests a jury trial.

March 26, 2013
The trial is held, and Hoskyn is the only witness to take the stand. None of the prospective witnesses for Bullock is present. Carruth hasn’t notified them of the trial because he thought the proceeding was an unspecified hearing.

Carruth phones Bullock during a recess and informs her that the trial has started and asks her to come to the courthouse to testify.

She is stunned to learn about the trial and tells Carruth she has taken prescribed medication that might impair her ability to drive safely. Carruth doesn’t ask the court for accommodation to get her to the trial. No transportation is arranged for her, and she doesn’t attend the trial.

April 30, 2013
Judge Henry rules that Bullock didn’t breach the lease but is responsible for paying Hoskyn’s claim. Although Bullock assigned the Hoskyn lease to the new owner, the judge’s letter of opinion indicates the sale terminated the lease.

Hoskyn is awarded $25,148 plus 5 percent annual interest dating from Dec. 31, 2010, to the entry of the judgment and 10 percent annual interest after that until the judgment is paid, $2,500 attorney fees and costs.

May 14, 2013
Bullock asks for a new trial through a new attorney, Scott Morgan and Jeffrey Swann of the Little Rock firm of Perkins & Trotter. The first item listed among the grounds for a new trial: “Mrs. Bullock was prevented from having a fair trial due to irregularity in the proceedings and order of court.”

June 25, 2013
Judge Henry issues an order denying a new trial.

 

 

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