Using the “plain error” doctrine, rarely used in civil cases, the Court of Appeals for the Southern District of Missouri, in Empire District Electric Co. v. Coverdell, reversed and remanded a January 14, 2010 jury verdict that had awarded Douglas Coverdell and Coverdell Enterprises the north third of Branson Landing and adjacent areas. This decision is dated June 3, 2011.
The appellate decision is based on the City of Branson’s argument that the trial court made a serious mistake by allowing the jury to enter a verdict affecting the property interests of the City of Branson (and others) who did not participate in the trial. The appellate court accepted the City’s argument that “plain error review” would be appropriate, because the court’s error was “so egregious as to ‘weaken the very foundation of the process’ and ‘seriously undermine confidence in the outcome of the case.’ ” Empire’s appellate arguments were not addressed in the decision, according to a footnote, since the court’s acceptance of the City’s arguments was sufficient to warrant reversal.
The City of Branson did not participate in the trial held in January 2010, though the City’s attorney was present in the gallery of the court room for much of the trial. In an earlier phase of the case, which took place in 2004, the City had won its effort of affirm its title to the west portion of the peninsula shared with North Beach Park. Thereafter, the City was in a monitoring mode, not aware that title to the City’s land, leased to Branson Landing, would be the subject of the trial.
The appellate court tied its decision to the words of Coverdell’s attorney, spoken to the jury, who told the jury in the January 2010 trial that the dispute with Empire concerned only the east part of the North Park Beach peninsula. Coverdell’s attorney is also quoted as telling the jury that the City “has nothing to do with this dispute between Empire and [Coverdell and Coverdell Enterprises.]”
However, the judgment that Coverdell’s attorneys submitted to the trial judge after the juy verdict included 27 acres that included the Belk store and parking lot at the between North Beach Park and the Belk store, as well as some of the area south and west of the Belk store. The trial court’s mistake was to cloud the title of the City and others who were did not participate in the 2010 trial. The owners of much of the 27 acres were not parties to the suit, which appears to be the fundamental reason for reversal of the trial court’s judgment. The appellate opinion refers to City’s statement that the City “as well as numerous other third parties, have interests in that southern tract of land such that Branson was aggrieved by the 2010 judgment.”
The appellate decision gives the City and Empire the right to amend their claims and face Coverdell in a new trial.