By John Balch
The federal lawsuit involving the 2010 Main Street fire in Nashville has again been set for trial.
The trial is scheduled for Monday, June 26 in the United States District Court Western Division of Arkansas in Texarkana.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Carl and Justin Johnson, who reside in Prescott, Ariz., and owned the business formerly known as “Collectible Corner.” The lawsuit names several current and former city officials as defendants.
The initial lawsuit filed by the Johnson brothers was dismissed but was ordered back to trial following an appeal. The case was dismissed again on April 2, 2014 “without prejudice” and gave the plaintiffs one year to re-file their complaint. The case was re-filed March 31, 2015.
The Johnsons’ business was located in the block where fire consumed several businesses the afternoon of Aug. 26, 2010. The business owners contend their building was unnecessarily knocked down during the course of fighting the fire, effectively violating their constitutional rights.
The plaintiffs are seeking monetary judgment against the defendants, jointly and severally, in the amount of $224,985 as the replacement cost of their building and $927,320 as the fair market value of their inventory, as well as attorney fees and other relief. The Johnson brothers have requested a jury trial to settle the matter.
The defendants listed in the case include the city of Nashville; Nashville Fire Chief Jerry Harwell; former Nashville mayor Mike Reese; current mayor Bill Ray Jones; and current Nashville City Council members Matt Smith, Nick Davis, Monica Clark, Vivian Wright, Jimmie Lou Kirkpatrick, Kay Gathright, James Parker, Carol Mitchell, Andy Anderson and Mike Milum. Also listed as defendants are former city council members Freddy Brown and Jackie Harwell.
In a document filed in July 2016 by the defendants’ attorneys, Ralph C. Ohm and C. Burt Newell, it is noted: “The prospects for settlement are unlikely.” However, a settlement conference was recently scheduled for June 12 at 10 a.m.
When the Main Street fire reached the plaintiff’s property, they claim it suffered only minor damage. And, Fire Chief Jerry Harwell “made the decision, pursuant to a standing policy or custom established by (the city of Nashville), to demolish plaintiff’s property without notice to plaintiffs or without determining the structural soundness of the plaintiff’s building, causing the building and inventory of antiques and collectibles within the building to de destroyed.”
The lawsuit further contends a construction company inspected the content of the building after the fire and concluded only 15 percent of the items inside Collectible Corner contained smoke or water damage. The plaintiffs, who were not in town at the time of the fire, claim Carl Johnson contacted the Nashville Fire Department and was assured the building would not be demolished.
As the fire was being extinguished in the adjacent building and immediately after, Johnson family members and friends were prepared to secure the building and appealed to the fire departments officials to allow recovery of inventory prior to demolition. But, they were “told by fire officials not to interfere and to clear away” and were unable to salvage any items before Harwell ordered the walls of the building to be pulled down.
“Witnesses at the scene attempted to explain to Harwell that the building was structurally sound and all it needed was a new roof. However, in his rush to demolish the building, Harwell needlessly prevented persons at the scene from boarding up the windows and safeguarding” property inside and outside the building, according to case information.
Along with the Nashville Fire Department, at least 10 departments from neighboring towns worked five hours to extinguish the fire.
The decision to demolish the building, according to the plaintiffs, violated their constitutional rights, including seizure of their property, denying them due process and their rights to equal protection.
“Defendants actions were directly contrary to the assurance given by both police and fire officials to plaintiff Carl Johnson that his building would not be demolished. After these assurances, defendant City of Nashville made no attempt to communicate with Plaintiffs prior to the demolition,” according to the lawsuit.
The defendants’ stance about the decision to raze the building was to “protect people and property” from any danger involved with the structure.