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Barton AG Ctr., Inc. v. Case

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division I

March 18, 2015

BARTON AG CENTER, INC., VERLON SPENCER, and GREENWAY EQUIPMENT, INC., APPELLANTS
v.
WILLIAM CASE, APPELLEE

APPEAL FROM THE PULASKI COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, FIFTH DIVISION. NO. CV-10-2219. HONORABLE WENDELL GRIFFEN, JUDGE.

Hardin, Jesson & Terry, PLC, by: Jeffrey W. Hatfield, for appellants.

Walker Law Firm, PLLC, by: Kent Walker, for appellee.

KENNETH S. HIXSON, Judge. VIRDEN and HARRISON, JJ., agree.

OPINION

Page 308

KENNETH S. HIXSON, Judge

A Pulaski County jury found that Verlon Spencer, Barton AG Center, Inc., and Greenway Equipment, Inc. (sometimes referred to collectively as " Greenway" [1] or as appellants) committed the tort of conversion with respect to two John Deere tractors owned by appellee William Case. The jury awarded compensatory and punitive damages against Greenway. Greenway appeals, raising two points for reversal: (1) that the trial court erred in submitting the conversion claim against them to the jury; and (2) that the trial court erred in submitting the punitive damages claim against them to the jury. We affirm the compensatory damages awarded against appellants on the conversion claim, but we reverse the punitive damages.

Conversion is a common-law tort action for the wrongful possession or disposition of another's property. Buck v. Gillham, 80 Ark.App. 375, 96 S.W.3d 750 (2003). The tort of conversion is committed when a party wrongfully commits a distinct act of dominion over the property of another that is inconsistent with the owner's rights. Id. The intent required is not conscious wrongdoing, but rather an intent to exercise dominion or control over the goods that is inconsistent with the plaintiff's rights. Id. Conversion can occur even where the party who took the property is operating under a mistaken belief. Schmidt v. Stearman, 98 Ark.App. 167, 253 S.W.3d 35 (2007).

The appellant's arguments on appeal challenge the trial court's denial of their motions for directed verdict and motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The standard of review of the denial of a motion for directed verdict is whether the jury's verdict is supported by substantial evidence. Med. Assurance Co., Inc. v. Castro, 2009 Ark. 93, at 3, 302 S.W.3d 592, 595 (quoting ConAgra Foods, Inc. v. Draper, 372 Ark. 361, 276 S.W.3d 244 (2008)). Similarly, in reviewing the denial of a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, the appellate court will reverse only if there is no substantial evidence to support the jury's verdict, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. Substantial evidence is that which goes beyond suspicion or conjecture and is sufficient to compel a conclusion one way or the other. Id. In determining whether there is substantial evidence, the court views the evidence and all reasonable inferences arising therefrom in the light most favorable to the party on whose behalf the judgment was entered. Id.

In 2008, William " Buddy" Case was working in the farming and dirt-moving business. He was a member of a limited liability company known as A& B Land Development. The members of the limited liability company were Buddy Case and Alex Liles.[2] Michael Booth worked part-time for A& B Land Development as a subcontractor. An opportunity arose in 2008 for A& B Development to move dirt for a housing project in Conway, Arkansas. Mr. Case testified that he furnished the

Page 309

equipment and Michael Booth did the work. A& B Land Development did not have the appropriate heavy equipment to perform the project. Buddy Case purchased a two-wheel drive John Deere 4840 Row Crop Tractor from Barton AG Center.[3] The salesman for Barton AG was Verlon Spencer. Both Buddy Case and Michael Booth discussed the purchase with Verlon Spencer.[4] The sales price of the John Deere 4840 was $17,500. Buddy Case made a $2,000 down payment and financed the balance of $15,500 through John Deere Credit. All of the financing documents and the loan contract were signed by " William A. Case" in his individual capacity.

At some point during the project, a John Deere 8960 tractor previously owned by Buddy Case broke down. As a result, Buddy Case bought a replacement four-wheel drive John Deere 8970 from Barton AG again through the salesman, Verlon Spencer. The sales price of the John Deere 8970 tractor was $49,500. Buddy Case made an $8,000 down payment and financed the balance of $41,500 through John Deere Credit. All of the financing documents and loan contract were signed by " William A. Case" in his individual capacity.

By 2009, A& B Land Development was not successful, and Case wanted out of the business. Booth approached John Peters with the opportunity to purchase the two John Deere tractors at issue in this case, and Peters agreed to buy the tractors. Booth and Peters went to Barton AG Center in September 2009, and Verlon Spencer assisted in the sale of the tractors to Peters. The tractors were financed with John Deere Credit in the sole name of John Peters.[5] The evidence suggested that Spencer may have been operating under the mistaken assumption that Booth was entitled to possess the tractors when he assisted with the Peters transaction. Peters would ultimately default ...


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