Supreme Court reverses Judge's decision on fire damage claims

The Arkansas Supreme Court has ordered more proceedings in a lawsuit seeking damages after a fire in 2011 destroyed property belonging to two people in Jefferson County and to Entergy Arkansas.

On Thursday, the court reversed a decision by Circuit Judged Jodi Raines Dennis that granted summary judgment to India Bishop, one of two people who were sued by Charlotte Hall Hardin, Troy Gentry Guthrey and Entergy following the fire on March 11, 2011.

The other defendant in the case, Randy Wardlaw, was ordered to pay Hardin $228,900 plus costs and Guthrey $453,750 plus costs. Entergy was denied judgment by the ruling.

The case began when Wardlaw — who was Bishop’s ex-husband and the father of her two children and who lived in a rented house on Bishop’s property east of Pine Bluff — burned dead vegetation in a drainage ditch on Bishop’s property.

The two had been married from 1969 to 1975 and remained close friends over the years, and Wardlaw occasionally performed work for Bishop, who had been ill. That work included cleaning out ditches, bush hogging, weed eating and grading on her property.

Bishop’s farmland adjoined property, including several permanent structures belonging to Hardin, her sister. The fire spread out of control and onto the property of American Tire and Truck Repair, a building owned by Hardin and rented to Guthrey, causing a $326,000 loss. The fire also destroyed $12,977.42 in electrical equipment belonging to Entergy, which was stored in the building.

Hardin and Guthrey filed the suit against both Bishop and Wardlaw, and in her answer, Bishop said she could not be held responsible because Wardlaw caused the damage, she was not responsible for his actions and should be excluded from the complaint.

In their answer, Hardin and Guthrey included part of a deposition from Wardlaw that said among other things that he did things for Bishop from time to time, that she would tell him if she did not want him to do something, that she did not pay him because it would endanger his unemployment check and that he was sure Bishop was aware of the fact that he burned the property. Also included was a statement from a second individual who said Wardlaw told him that Bishop had told him to set the fire.

After a hearing in 2012, Dennis granted Bishop summary judgment, but did not offer a basis for that ruling, with the high court saying that the ruling was based on a section of state law “if there are no issues as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law on the issues specifically set forth in the motion.”

Hardin and Guthrey challenged that ruling, contending that there were questions that had not been answered, specifically whether Wardlaw was acting as an agent for Bishop when he set the fire.

To support that argument, they presented the deposition from Wardlaw, as well as that of second individual and deposition testimony from Bishop who said Wardlaw “would have needed her permission to conduct a dangerous activity such as burning tall grass or brush.”

Writing for the high court, Justice Courtney Hudson Goodson said because of the conflicting arguments, “genuine issues of material fact exist regarding the issue of whether Wardlaw acted as an agent of Bishop.”

A second issue, whether Hardin and Guthrey should have received double damages based on the state’s fire prevention statute, was not discussed in the court’s ruling because the case was sent back to Dennis to settle the other issues.