Rice-sale loss is put at $5.9M by jurors in Lonoke County

Turner entities, Coleman owe 92%

LONOKE -- A Lonoke County jury on Tuesday said a group of farmers lost $5.9 million in rice sales in 2014 and assigned nearly all the blame to the late Jason Coleman, a co-founder of Turner Grain Merchandising Inc., and to the operations of several entities of the bankrupt grain seller.

The jury, after nearly two hours of further deliberation on a possible award of punitive damages, will return to duty at 9 a.m. today, the 17th day of a civil trial in Lonoke County Circuit Court.

At least nine jurors had to agree on a range of claims made by the farmers in their lawsuit against Turner Grain entities and KBX Inc., a Little Rock grain dealer.

The jury said Coleman, who died last year, and Turner Grain entities were each responsible for 46%, totaling 92% of the losses suffered by the four Lonoke County farming entities. Coleman's estate is a defendant in the lawsuit.

The jury assigned 3% of the blame to Steven Michael Keith Sr., founder and president of KBX, and 3% to his son, Steven Michael Keith Jr.,, a grain buyer and seller for KBX. It assigned 1% responsibility each to KBX Inc. and to Shay Sebree, also a KBX employee.

The jury cleared Dale Bartlett of Marvell, the other co-founder of Turner Grain Merchandising, and Christopher Taylor, a Turner employee, of wrongdoing. It also found no liability on the part of Gavilon Inc., a Nebraska company that did a lot of corn transactions with Turner Grain.

Turner Grain Merchandising Inc., based in Brinkley, was forced to close in August 2014 when federal regulators found no grain in bins certified as being full. The grain bins were part of the operations of Agribusiness Properties, a grain elevator established by Coleman and Bartlett in 2004 as part of their grain merchandising business.

Within two months of closing, Turner Grain filed for federal bankruptcy protection, initially listing $23.8 million in debts and $13.8 million in assets. The debts later were amended to nearly $47 million, most of it owed to farmers.

Turner Grain Merchandising itself isn't a defendant in the Lonoke County case because of its filing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

Kendel Grooms, an attorney for the Lonoke County plaintiffs, asked the jury Tuesday to levy as much as $41.6 million in punitive damages. That total reflects the state maximum of seven times the compensatory damages, Grooms said.

If the jury assigned the same percentages to punitive damages as it did in its compensatory verdict, the KBX defendants would be liable for $3.3 million, a number Grooms described as an "absolute minimum."

There is no indication of the Turner Grain entities having any assets. Turner Grain Merchandising's bankruptcy case is still open.

The farmers contend that Turner was an agent of KBX, and that it is KBX who owes the farmers for 832,703 bushels of rice taken from their farms or grain bins and delivered elsewhere for domestic milling or for export.

KBX and its principals contend that the company paid Turner Grain for all the rice it bought from the Brinkley company, including $104 million in payments from Oct. 14, 2013, to Aug. 11, 2014. Those payments included the Lonoke County farmers' rice, KBX has said.

Duff Nolan, a Stuttgart attorney for Bartlett, said he was happy "the jury cleared Dale Bartlett's name, and we essentially proved that he is not responsible for the collapse of Turner Grain." Bartlett filed for personal bankruptcy, and that case remains open.

Andy Turner, a Cabot attorney for Taylor, told the jury repeatedly in opening statements and closing arguments that Taylor was a mere salesman for Turner Grain, working on a commission basis, and had nothing to do with management decisions and authorizing payments. (Andy Turner is of no relation to Turner Grain.)

Business on 02/26/2020

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