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Jones v. John B. Dozier Land Trust

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division IV

January 18, 2017




          Taylor & Taylor Law Firm, P.A., by: Andrew C. Taylor and Tasha C. Taylor, for appellant.

          Hillburn, Calhoon, Harper Pruniski & Calhoun, Ltd., by: Sam Hillburn and Tetiana Fayman, for appellee.

          KENNETH S. HIXSON, Judge

         Appellant Barry Jones (Jones) d/b/a Borderline Farms appeals from the Lee County Circuit Court's judgment awarding appellee, the John B. Dozier Land Trust (the Dozier Trust), John B. Dozier (Dozier), Trustee, damages for breach of contract. On appeal, appellant contends that (1) the repair estimate was inadmissible hearsay; (2) the allegation that appellant caused the oil spill was based on speculation and conjecture; and (3) another entity, Dozier Farms, Inc. (Dozier Farms), was a necessary party. We reverse and remand.

         Dozier was married to Cathy Dozier. Cathy has a son from a previous marriage, Jones. Hence, Jones was Dozier's stepson. The Dozier Trust owned approximately 1100 acres of farmland in Lee County. Dozier was the sole trustee of the trust. Dozier, as trustee, leased a portion of the farmland to his stepson, Jones, beginning in 2007.[1] The leased premises contained a shop building. In January 2011, Dozier and Cathy Dozier separated in contemplation of divorce. At some point, Dozier decided that he did not want to continue the farming arrangement with his soon-to-be ex-stepson, Jones. On January 24, 2011, Dozier's attorney sent Jones a letter terminating Jones's lease of the farmland after the 2011 crop season. The letter advised Jones that he could harvest the current crop but warned Jones not to plant any crops in the fall of 2011.

         A few months after Jones had vacated the property, [2] Dozier inspected it and discovered, among other things, alleged damage to the irrigation system and the shop-building door, and a significant oil spill on the ground just outside the shop building. The Dozier Trust filed an action for breach of contract, negligence, intentional tort, and unjust enrichment against Jones. Generally, the Dozier Trust alleged that Jones was responsible for damages for failing to pay 20 percent of the proceeds from a separate lawsuit, failing to properly maintain irrigation equipment, failing to keep the shop clean by permitting an oil spill, failing to cut the cotton stalks at the end of the harvest, causing damage to an overhead door on the shop, and causing damage to the irrigation system.[3] Jones answered and denied the allegations and alternatively alleged that he was entitled to a setoff in the amount of $7, 214.79 for amounts that he had paid to Woodruff Electric Cooperative that benefited the trust.

         At trial, Dozier testified that he had rented the farmland to his stepson, Jones, and that there were written leases for every year except 2011, which he referred to as Jones's "carryover year." Although he could not locate the signed copy of the 2010 lease, an unsigned copy of the 2010 lease was admitted into evidence without objection. Dozier additionally explained that all of the leases were essentially the same except for specifying alternating fields that Jones could use for planting. Dozier explained that he allowed Jones to continue to farm and harvest his crops in 2011 because Dozier did not think that he had given Jones enough notice to procure land somewhere else in a timely manner. Therefore, Dozier agreed that Jones had a "holdover lease" in 2011.

         One of the lease provisions required Jones to keep the shop clean and organized to the best of his ability. After Jones had vacated the property, Dozier observed burnt motor oil poured or spilled all over the ground around the shop. Photographs of the area around the shop containing the oil spill were admitted into evidence.

         Dozier testified that a thousand-gallon tank was located outside the shop building for proper disposal of any oil "because [the Environmental Protection Agency] was cracking down on spilling oil on the ground, and we had a company that would come pump it out and take it off." Therefore, he explained, there should not have been any buckets of oil near the tank or oil poured or spilled on the ground. Dozier further testified that no other farmer used that shop and that to his knowledge "there's absolutely no other person that could have done this." At the time of the trial in September 2015, Dozier stated that he had not had the oil spill cleaned up but had procured an estimate from The Southern Company of North Little Rock (The Southern Company) in the amount of $28, 200 for the cleanup costs. The Dozier Trust attempted to introduce the estimate into evidence to prove damages. However, Jones objected to the estimate being admitted into evidence on the basis that it was hearsay. The Dozier Trust responded that the estimate met the business-record exception and that it had attached an affidavit from the company that prepared the estimate. At that time, the trial court stated that the document "will be received for the limited purposes of putting it in the record, but I'll have to make a decision on that."

         Gregory Williams testified that he had been an employee of Dozier and had been working on the farmland for about thirty-one years. Williams had been working for Jones until he quit in February of 2011. Williams also testified that he observed the oil spill in October 2011 and explained that the spill had not been there when he quit in February 2011. Therefore, he explained that the oil spill had to have occurred between the time he left in February 2011 and October of 2011. Williams further testified that no other farmer had access to or was using the oil tank at the shop. He additionally indicated that Jones had told him that "he was beating [Dozier] at every move."

         Jones testified and denied that he had spilled the oil and testified that he did not know who was responsible for the oil spill. He additionally denied signing the 2010 lease agreement but admitted that he had entered into lease agreements from 2007 through 2009. Although Jones denied making a statement to Williams that he was beating Dozier at every move, Jones admitted that he probably threatened Dozier in response to Dozier's threats toward him. Jones testified that he did keep the shop clean but also stated that Williams, his farm manager, was responsible for cleaning the shop when he was an employee. Jones did not testify as to when he specifically vacated the farmland, though he maintained that he "had [the farmland] . . . until the end of 2011." Finally, he testified that the oil spill was not present when he left.

         At the conclusion of the trial, the trial court orally ruled from the bench, which was subsequently memorialized in a judgment entered on November 2, 2015. The trial court specifically found that the Dozier Trust had a valid lease with Jones and that the lease agreement had been breached. The trial court further found that Jones was responsible for damages and awarded the Dozier Trust $28, 200 for the oil spill, $1, 885 for the shop overhead door, and $2, 500 in attorney's fees. However, ...

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