A judge on Wednesday declined to dismiss a corruption lawsuit against nursing-home owner Michael Morton and former lobbyist Gilbert Baker.
Special Circuit Judge David Laser also granted a motion to exclude testimony by the defense's expert witness, retired U.S. District Judge James Moody Sr.
"We're obviously pleased with Judge Laser's rulings. We felt that he followed the law," said attorney Thomas Buchanan, who represents the family suing Morton and Baker in Faulkner County Circuit Court.
Moody has defended a July 2013 ruling in which former Circuit Judge Michael Maggio cut a Faulkner County jury's judgment against a Morton-owned nursing home from $5.2 million to $1 million. The now-imprisoned Maggio ruled in a negligence lawsuit filed by two daughters of Martha Bull, a Perryville woman who died in Morton's Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in April 2008.
Attorneys for Bull's family have argued that Maggio lowered the judgment after Morton and Baker conspired to bribe Maggio. Maggio pleaded guilty to a federal bribery charge in January 2015, and a grand jury indicted Baker on conspiracy, bribery and wire-fraud charges earlier this year. Morton has not been charged, and he and Baker deny wrongdoing.
Attorneys for Bull's family have noted that Moody had said that Maggio's ruling reducing the judgment was appropriate under Arkansas law and that "any reasonable, impartial judge would have reached the same conclusion."
The attorneys countered that it doesn't matter if an impartial judge would have ruled the same as Maggio because, they said, "The bribe, in and of itself, renders Judge Moody's opinions irrelevant and unreliable."
Laser seemed to agree.
Laser "found little probative value in Moody's opinions and found that the danger of undue prejudice and confusion of the issue outweighed any probative value," according to Buchanan, who is to prepare Laser's decisions in writing for the court. Judges often have the attorney who won a specific argument draft that ruling.
Two of Morton's attorneys, John Everett and Kirkman Dougherty, did not immediately return phone messages seeking comment.
In asking Laser to dismiss the lawsuit, Everett and Dougherty had argued in a court document that the plaintiffs could not cite " a single piece of admissible evidence that could establish that Morton ever spoke to or communicated with Maggio in any way."
They added, "The only 'evidence' that the plaintiffs cite to as proof that Morton was involved in the alleged bribery of Maggio is Maggio's plea agreement," which they called "inadmissible hearsay." They also noted that Maggio later tried to withdraw his guilty plea but that a judge rejected the request.
But on Wednesday, Laser agreed to grant "judicial notice" to Maggio's guilty plea and conviction, meaning the court accepts both as fact. Laser declined, however, to grant that recognition to the content of Maggio's plea agreement.
That agreement contains allegations that Morton and Baker have disputed. Those allegations no doubt would be part of any trial of the lawsuit against the two men.
Source: arkansas online
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