Lawsuits can move forward after state’s high court agrees on definition of ‘malicious conduct’

By: Lynn LaRowe – Texarkana Gazette

The Arkansas Supreme Court handed down an opinion Thursday supporting victims and their families in federal lawsuits concerning the 2010 flood that took the lives of 20 campers at Albert Pike campgrounds.

The opinion answered a question submitted last year by U.S. District Judge Susan Hickey. Hickey asked the state’s highest court to interpret the meaning of the word “malicious” as it is used in the Arkansas Recreational Use Statute. The U.S. government argued in motions to dismiss 11 suits pending in the Texarkana division of the Western District of Arkansas that the statute bars claims for damages unless actual malice or the desire to harm others is present. Lawyers for the numerous plaintiffs in the suits argued the statute allows legal action when “malicious conduct includes conduct committed in reckless disregard of the consequences.”

The Arkansas Supreme Court answered Hickey’s question Thursday by agreeing with the definition of malicious conduct put forth by victims and their families.

“This is certainly good news for our plaintiff and the other plaintiffs. This has been a long process, and this should get the ball rolling,” said lawyer Melody Piazza of Trammell Piazza law firm, which has offices in Texarkana and Little Rock. Chad Trammell of Texarkana and Piazza represent a family that lost several relatives in the tragic flood. Trammell Piazza and Little Rock attorney Deborah Riordan briefed the case to the state supreme court.

Hickey put all 11 of the suits on hold while the Arkansas Supreme Court considered the question.

“I’m hoping the stay will be lifted quickly,” Piazza said. “This was a good question for the supreme court to accept. Now that there’s an answer, we’re ready to move forward.”

All of the suits allege the U.S. government knew an ultra-hazardous condition existed in the campgrounds along the Little Missouri River in Ouachita National Forest, but neglected to warn the public or take measures to reduce the risk presented by campgrounds situated in a flood plain.

On June 11, 2010, as campers slept, the river rose from 3 to more than 23 feet in a matter of hours. Picnic tables, cars, paved road, recreational vehicles and campers were swept away in the roiling waters.

The dead include children, parents, grandparents, husbands, wives and friends.

The lawsuits allege the government knew the risks of camping in Albert Pike, particularly in the Loop D campground, where all of those who died were at the time of the flood.

A report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture noted many factors, including failure of the Forest Service to follow many of its own regulations, as contributing to the tragedy. Those failings of the Forest Service are listed in each of the federal suits.

The suits claim a district ranger was eager to spend $600,000 in funds marked for renovations at Albert Pike and ignored recommendations from the Forest Service experts that the area known as Loop D be designated as primitive camping only, as well as a long and documented history of flooding.

 Read the opinion here.
Published: 04/11/2014