Friday, July 8, 2011

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part LXXXV): Dogpatch lawsuit finalized

Some months ago, the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld a 2008 jury verdict against Michael Carr and other owners of an abandoned property where Pruett Nance, then a minor, was injured in 2005. The initial jury verdict for $400,000 was intended to compensate Nance, along with his father Stewart Nance, for injuries the younger Nance suffered when he rode a four-wheeled all-terrain vehicle into a cable stretched between two trees on the abandoned property where the amusement park Dogpatch USA once stood. The trial court initially reduced the $400K award to just over $237K, but the Arkansas Supreme Court reinstated the larger award, saying that the elder Nance was entitled to compensation for care-giving he provided to his son and that "the verdict was not so great as to shock the conscience of the court or demonstrate prejudice on the part of the jury."

The precise sequence of events that led to Nance's injury was disputed at trial, but the essence is that Nance, then a minor, was "driving an ATV down a defined road in the park and drove into a steel cable strung between two trees, striking him in the throat." In dispute was whether Mike Carr knew Nance was on the property and whether he strung the cable intending to injure Nance or knowing that he was likely to do so. Apparently, the Nance's had ridden ATVs on the property in the past as trespassers--without the owners' permission--and Carr knew of this past practice. The Arkansas Court of Appeals' decision said that "Stewart Nance had spoken with Mike Carr, who was believed to be associated with the theme park, and he was aware of their presence in the park. It noted that the cable was unmarked and was across the road at a height and position to injure a person driving on the road."

One legal issue before the Arkansas Supreme Court was whether the cable was "an ultra-hazardous condition or activity." Carr had testified to the jury that he had gone to get some tape to mark the cable at the time the accident occurred. The circuit court stated that "ordinary care would have reduced the risk of harm" from the cable, "but not have eliminated the risk." The Arkansas Supreme Court held that "hanging a cable does not constitute an ultra-hazardous activity, but hanging an unmarked cable at a dangerous height in areas where a landowner knows people are traveling on four-wheelers changes the definition."

A recent Newton County Times story reports the end of the story, as it were. The defendants were ordered by a Circuit Court judge in May "to tender a warranty deed for the property in case the judgment wasn't paid." Thus, the Nances and their attorney became the owners of the land that was once home to Dogpatch USA.

Several things make this story particularly interesting from a local (or localist/rural) standpoint. One is that the outcome flies in the face of widespread assumptions that rural folks are super vigilant about respecting property rights. In this case, after all, the trespassers recovered a $400K judgment. On the other hand, the defendants in this case were "out of towners" while the plaintiffs were, in a sense, true locals. That is, Carr and his family and others have owned Dogpatch USA for many years, and the Carr family are from neighboring Boone County. The Nances, on the other hand, have roots in Newton County. That is, Stewart Nance is the son of the man who previously owned the Newton County Bank, even though Stewart Nance and his siblings attended high school in Boone County, and none of his generation--let alone the injured Pruett Nance--has lived in Newton County for years.

As for the Newton County property at stake--the property that once was Dogpatch USA--it can now be said to be back in Newton County hands, at least nominally.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great write up. You identify the "justice" that was served within what I feel was an injustice of the judicial system in Arkansas. At least to some degree the silver lining of what really happened in that small town court can be seen.

Anonymous said...

Awful precedent for Arkansas to have. Stringing a cable on your property amounts to a "booby-trap"? A gun triggered to go off when someone opens a door is a far cry from a simple cable strung on your own property. I guess Arkansas folks don't care much for property rights like the rest of the country. The entire family had been warned to stay off the property, even being driven off it by people hired to protect the property, and still they kept coming back. On top of that, the father knew the cable was there and was going to mark it, yet didn't think to warn his son? Terrible life lesson for the young one to learn, but it was at his own hand. I suppose though it was not a huge loss for the original owners, since they owed back property taxes and could have lost it to a tax sale.