A Marion County Circuit Court trial expected to span up to a month was terminated on day two Tuesday with a "non-suit" action. Marion County and Circuit Clerk Dawn Moffet says the action came about 9:30 Tuesday morning after the plaintiff asked for a mistrial, alleging news accounts of the trial had been prejudicial towards the plaintiff. Judge John Putman cautioned lawyers for the plaintiff, saying it could be up to two years before the case could be placed back on the docket. Jurors were brought into the courtroom and asked if they had heard about the case on the radio, in the newspaper or on Facebook. All of the jurors said no.
The judge and both parties had another meeting, which led to the non-suit ruling. The plaintiff has up to one year to refile the case.
A non-suit is a broad term for any of several ways to terminate a legal action without an actual determination of the controversy on the merits.
The trial kicked off Monday when a large number of prospective jurors showed up to be questioned by attorneys on both sides of a wrongful death suit.
The suit was filed by the sister of 36-year-old Michael Paul Wood of Summit on behalf of herself and Wood's estate. A jury in the case was seated about 4 Monday afternoon. Wood died in mid-November 2016 after he came into contact with what has been described as a "downed" Entergy-Arkansas power line. His body was found in a ditch near the dangling 8,000-volt power line alleged to have killed him. The line is located along State Highway 202, near South Oak Street in Summit, according to court documents.
An autopsy was performed by the Arkansas State Medical Examiner's Office and Wood's cause of death was listed as high voltage electrocution.
From the paperwork filed in the case, Entergy-Arkansas lawyers were expected to argue Wood might have been in a distracted state-of-mind and less likely to properly react to hazardous situations because of his long-time abuse of methamphetamine.
A report from an addiction expert, who may testify for Entergy-Arkansas, alleges his investigation showed Wood had a substance abuse problem dating back to at least his teenage years. At the time of his death, Wood tested positive for methamphetamine, amphetamine and cannabinoids in his system, according to the autopsy report. The Entergy-Arkansas expert lists a number of conclusions he drew from his review of the case.
He wrote a person with a substance abuse disorder would be more likely to engage in risky behavior when compared to the general population, and persons under the influence of methamphetamine could be expected to show signs of "increased distractibility and impaired judgment."
The expert's report concludes use of the drug could have made Wood less alert and less likely to respond normally to hazards he might encounter. In court documents, Entergy-Arkansas argues because of his substance abuse disorder, it would not be unusual for Wood not to "keep a proper lookout."
Entergy-Arkansas contends when Wood entered the area, apparently walking to a nearby liquor store on State Highway 202 for cigarettes, the downed line would have been arcing, sparking and popping. In one report, it is alleged despite the "noise and light show," Wood still came in contact with the line.
In the deposition of one of Wood's brothers, the sibling was asked if any of his brothers and sisters knew of Wood's alleged drug habit. The brother said, "I don't know if they knew any facts, but it was talked about in the family."
The brother said he was not aware if any of the siblings tried to intervene in any way to address Wood's alleged drug problem, but his father had tried to talk to his son about the problem. The brother said the methamphetamine use was not considered "that big of an issue" with Wood. "He's more of a pot smoker, to be honest," the man said of his dead brother.
In the suit brought by the sister and Wood's estate, it is alleged the power line was part of distribution infrastructure designed and constructed in 1956, and had not been properly maintained as required. The plaintiff's attorneys argue in court filings the line would not have fallen and Wood would not have been killed if proper maintenance had been done by Entergy-Arkansas.
A large number of motions have been filed by both sides and will have to be dealt with by Circuit Judge John Putman. Many of the motions ask the court to bar certain testimony. Wood's relatives, for example, do not want the jury to hear anyone testify whether or not the power line was "arcing and sparking," and Entergy-Arkansas wants testimony regarding the smell at the scene not to come before the jury.
Entergy-Arkansas had indicated it would -- at least partially -- rely on the comparative fault defense; meaning Wood's actions or inactions might have been partly to blame for the accident that took his life.
The lawyers representing the Wood family filed a motion on the eve of the trial asking the court to withdraw mental anguish claims on behalf of several of Wood's sisters and brothers who were named in the original complaint. There was no reason spelled out in the filing as to why the action was taken.
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