Little Rock blogger and attorney Matt Campbell’s “calendaring mistake” caused him to miss practically all of his clients’ jury trial in February 2017, a trial that ended in a $1.8 million judgment.
Campbell has appealed the judgment to the Arkansas Court of Appeals, asking that it be thrown out and the case be sent back to Scott County Circuit Court to “properly” consider his motion to dismiss. And if the matter is not dismissed, Campbell said, he wants a new trial.
In his appeal, filed in November, Campbell said he had mistakenly thought the two-day trial for his clients, First Government Lease Co. of Northfield, Illinois, and its owner, Paul Graver, started on Feb. 23, 2017.
When the Circuit Court’s office called Campbell on the morning of Feb. 22 and asked him where he was, Campbell said he had made a “calendaring mistake” and requested the start of the trial be delayed to give him time to drive 140 miles from Little Rock to Waldron, according to his court filings.
Scott County Circuit Judge David McCormick wasn’t going to wait any longer for a case that was filed in December 2012. He started the trial — without anyone representing Campbell’s clients in a counterclaim by Northwest Scott County Volunteer Fire Department over allegations of fraud and deceptive trade practices involving a $90,000 defaulted loan and repossessed Fire Department equipment.
Campbell arrived at the courthouse just before noon on Feb. 22, 2017, in time for closing arguments. It didn’t take long for the jury to return a verdict in favor of the Fire Department for $258,000 in compensatory damages and $1.5 million for damages meant to punish Graver.
Campbell is known for his Blue Hog Report blog, which has taken down public figures like Faulkner County Circuit Judge Mike Maggio and Little Rock School District Superintendent Dexter Suggs.
Campbell, who didn’t return an email or phone calls from Arkansas Business, said in his court filings that he “mistakenly thought the trial was to begin on Feb. 23, 2017.”
His absence, Campbell said, left him unable to participate in jury selection or object to the “multiple leading questions” from the Fire Department’s attorney, Derick Allison of Walters Gaston Allison & Parker of Greenwood.
Campbell also said he didn’t get to introduce evidence that would have helped his clients.
“The circuit court’s refusal to grant a continuance — either for a day or for a few hours — was a manifest abuse of discretion amounting to a denial of justice,” Campbell wrote.
Another lawyer for the Fire Department, Troy Gaston, said in court filings that the verdict should stand. He said that Campbell was aware of the trial date “months in advance” and Judge McCormick had a right to proceed.
The roots of the case can be traced to 2011, when the Northwest Scott County Volunteer Fire Department was short about $90,000 to buy a $260,000 firetruck.
It turned to Graver’s First Government Lease Co. to borrow the $90,000.
Graver “knew that we didn’t have a budget and didn’t have a lot of money or very good trucks,” Fire Chief Donnie Adkins testified in the trial. “[Graver] said, ‘I will work with you. I do it every day.’ And I took him at his word.”
The 10-year loan called for monthly payments of about $1,400, resulting in total interest payments of $76,500.
The Fire Department made a few payments but then defaulted.
First Government took the firetruck and “sold it immediately for $180,000” and kept the proceeds, Allison, the Fire Department’s attorney, told Arkansas Business. First Government then sued the Fire Department in an attempt to “obtain possession of all their other vehicles, which he [Graves] had obtained a security interest in as well,” Allison said. “Just because you take a security interest in everything doesn’t mean you own everything.”
The Fire Department filed a counterclaim and included the fraud allegation.
In 2014, First Government voluntarily dismissed its case, leaving the counterclaim in place.
While the trial was pending, an agent for Graves took possession of another one of the Fire Department’s firetrucks, a truck that was valued at about $100,000 and that carried the Jaws of Life, Allison said.
The fire chief told Allison that without the rescue tool to pry open a vehicle, “he thinks it probably may have cost someone their life,” Allison said. “They had someone die while they were trying to get them out of a vehicle. … So [Adkins] was very upset by that.”
Allison referred questions to Adkins, who didn’t return a call for comment.