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Taylor v. Doss

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division I

May 25, 2016



          Osborne Law Firm, by: Ken Osborne, for appellant.

          Mitchell, Williams, Selig, Gates & Woodyard, P.L.L.C., by: Kathlyn Graves and Jeffrey L. Spillyards, for appellees.

          LARRY D. VAUGHT, Judge.

         On February 6, 2012, an ammonia leak at a Tyson Foods plant in Springdale, Arkansas, where appellant Gregory Taylor was employed, caused a plant evacuation. Following an internal investigation of the leak, Tyson management concluded that Taylor and coemployee Daniel Patrick were involved in causing the leak. Tyson terminated Taylor and Patrick, and they were subsequently charged by the Washington County Deputy Prosecutor with second-degree criminal mischief and ten counts of third-degree battery committed against ten Tyson employees who were exposed to the ammonia. Four months later, the criminal charges against Taylor and Patrick were dismissed by an order of nolle prosequi.

         In October 2014, Taylor filed a civil complaint alleging malicious prosecution against appellees, Tyson Foods, Inc., and its employees Woody Doss, Gregory Clark, and Chris Mitchell. Appellees moved for summary judgment, and the Circuit Court of Washington County entered an order granting the motion. Taylor appeals, contending that summary judgment was entered in error because there are material facts in dispute. We affirm.

         The facts and procedural history of this case are summarized in detail in its companion case, Patrick v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 2016 Ark.App. 221, ___ S.W.3d ___, handed down April 20, 2016.[1] As in Patrick, the trial court granted appellees' motion for summary judgment dismissing the malicious-prosecution complaint finding that (1) there was probable cause to issue the warrant; (2) there was no evidence of malice; and (3) appellees were entitled to the advice-of-counsel defense because they made a full, fair, and truthful disclosure of all facts known to them, including the security video, to competent counsel/prosecuting attorney.

         Summary judgment is to be granted by a trial court only when it is clear that there are no genuine issues of material fact to be litigated and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Sawada v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 2015 Ark.App. 549, at 3, 473 S.W.3d 60, 63. Once a moving party has established a prima facie entitlement to summary judgment, the opposing party must meet proof with proof and demonstrate the existence of a material issue of fact. Id., 473 S.W.3d at 63. On appeal, we determine if summary judgment was appropriate based on whether the evidentiary items presented by the moving party in support of its motion leave a material fact unanswered. Id., 473 S.W.3d at 63. This court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion was filed, resolving all doubts and inferences against the moving party. Id., 473 S.W.3d at 63. Our review is not limited to the pleadings, as we also focus on the affidavits and other documents filed by the parties. Id., 473 S.W.3d at 63. After reviewing undisputed facts, summary judgment should be denied if, under the evidence, reasonable men might reach different conclusions from those undisputed facts. Id. at 4, 473 S.W.3d at 63.

         To establish a claim for malicious prosecution, a plaintiff must prove (1) a judicial proceeding instituted or continued by the defendant against the plaintiff; (2) termination of the proceeding in favor of the plaintiff; (3) lack of probable cause for the proceeding; (4) malice on the part of the defendant; and (5) damages. Sawada, 2015 Ark.App. 549, at 4, 473 S.W.3d at 63–64.

         On appeal, Taylor argues that the trial court erred in entering summary judgment on his malicious-prosecution complaint because genuine issues of material fact exist. Specifically, he argues that there are "hotly contested fact questions" on the issues of probable cause and malice and on the advice-of-counsel defense because Tyson's internal report falsely stated that the security video showed he committed crimes. For example, he contends that the report falsely stated that the video showed (1) Patrick moving behind a support column to hide from view of the camera; (2) Patrick motioning to two men walking by together, one of whom was Taylor; (3) Taylor turning and walking to Patrick; (4) Patrick handing a container to Taylor; (5) Taylor walking to the ammonia valve; and (6) Taylor bending over, holding the container under the ammonia valve, appearing startled, standing up quickly, and walking rapidly away while screwing the lid back on the container. Taylor argues that the video shows him performing his regular job duties. For support, he cites the affidavit of Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Brian Lamb, who stated that he filed the charges against Taylor based, in part, on the statements made in the Tyson report regarding what could be observed in the video. When Lamb later viewed the video in preparation for trial, the actions taken by Taylor as described in the internal report were not clear to Lamb.

         In making a probable-cause determination in the context of a malicious-prosecution suit, the court generally "concentrates on the facts before the [legal] action commenced." Sundeen v. Kroger, 355 Ark. 138, 145, 133 S.W.3d 393, 397 (2003). The test for determining probable cause is an objective one based not on the accused's actual guilt, but on the existence of facts or credible information that would induce a person of ordinary caution to believe the accused to be guilty. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Yarbrough, 284 Ark. 345, 348, 681 S.W.2d 359, 361 (1984). Generally, ordinary caution is a standard of reasonableness and an issue for the jury. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Binns, 341 Ark. 157, 163, 15 S.W.3d 320, 324 (2000). However, when the facts relied on to establish probable cause are undisputed, the question of whether probable cause exists is one for the courts. Id., 15 S.W.3d at 324. In Binns, our supreme court stated that if the defendant in a malicious-prosecution case "believed and had grounds for entertaining 'honest and strong suspicion' that [the plaintiff] was guilty" of a crime, it was entitled to a directed verdict. Id. at 163, 15 S.W.3d at 324.

         Before criminal charges were filed against Taylor, seven members of Tyson management[2] viewed the video. Each concluded that Taylor's activity in and around the ammonia valve was suspicious and that he was involved in the ammonia-leak incident. After meeting with Tyson management and viewing the video, separate appellees Woody Doss and Gregory Clark, both Tyson security managers, agreed with management's conclusion that Taylor had been involved in the leak incident. Based on Tyson management's interpretation of the video, Doss and Clark interviewed Taylor. In that interview, it was revealed that Taylor had been convicted of committing arson against a former employer after a dispute. Taylor showed very little emotion during his interview, denied seeing or speaking with Patrick on the day in question, and denied any involvement with the leak. Doss and Clark found Taylor lacked credibility. Based on the investigation, Tyson terminated Taylor's employment.

         Others reached the same conclusion about Taylor's involvement in the leak incident as did appellees. Before charges were filed (and before the Tyson internal report was prepared), Springdale Police Officer Richard Huddler reviewed the video at the Tyson plant and opined that Taylor (and Patrick) engaged in criminal activity (the theft of anhydrous ammonia for drug purposes). Springdale Police Detective Eric Evans also viewed the video and later swore out an arrest warrant for Taylor, stating that there was probable cause to arrest Taylor for second-degree criminal mischief and third-degree battery. Finally, Prosecutor Lamb, who had possession of the report and video, filed the felony information against Taylor.

         These facts are uncontroverted and establish that, based on the information appellees possessed from its internal investigation, they believed and had grounds for entertaining honest and strong suspicion that Taylor was guilty of tampering with the ammonia valve that leaked. Appellees' beliefs were corroborated by the statements and actions of law enforcement and the deputy prosecutor. These unrefuted facts would induce a person of ordinary caution to believe the accused to be guilty. Accordingly, we hold that the trial court did not err in finding that Taylor's malicious-prosecution claim could not succeed because there was probable cause for the criminal charges. See Sawada, 2015 Ark.App. 549, at 8, 473 S.W.3d at 65–66 (affirming summary judgment of plaintiff's malicious-prosecution claim where evidence was undisputed that the information Wal-Mart possessed from its internal investigation and subsequent interview of the plaintiff was enough to cause a person of ordinary caution to believe that the plaintiff committed a theft; therefore, it was sufficient to establish probable cause).

         Taylor's contention that the video and the investigative report can be interpreted differently (he claims that it does not show him engaged in any criminal activity) does not create a factual dispute on the issue of probable cause sufficient to defeat summary judgment. Appellees internally, along with law enforcement and the prosecutor, were of the opinion, mistakenly or not, that Taylor was involved in a nonaccidental ammonia leak. Probable cause exists when a person honestly but mistakenly believes someone is guilty of a crime, and that mistaken belief is reasonable. Sawada, 2015 Ark.App. 549, at 9, 473 S.W.3d at 66 (citing Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Williams, 71 Ark.App. 211, 214, 29 S.W.3d 754, 756 (2000) (stating that "[t]he test for determining probable cause is an objective one.")). Here, appellees, based on their thorough investigation, could reasonably have believed that Taylor was involved in purposely tampering with the valve that caused the ammonia leak and injuries to fellow employees. The police and prosecutor concurred. As a matter of law, this evidence satisfied ...

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