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Oliver loses suit against farm lender
Superior Court civil trial was centered around Hart County land deal
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Hall County Commission Chairman Tom Oliver on Tuesday lost his lawsuit against the officers of a cooperative farming lender he accused of mishandling a Hart County land deal at the expense of shareholders.

A Hall County Superior Court jury of six men and six women deliberated for about three hours before finding for the defendants in the weeklong civil trial.

The jury had three questions to answer: whether AgGeorgia Farm Credit Executive Vice President Alton Thornton breached his fiduciary duty to shareholders; whether AgGeorgia Farm Credit CEO Bill Newberry breached his fiduciary duties; and whether Oliver was entitled to recover attorneys fees in the case.

The jury’s answer to all three questions was “no.”

Oliver, an egg farmer and a member and shareholder of AgGeorgia, filed the suit in 2006 after he and an investment partner failed in their bid to buy a 100-acre poultry farm in Hart County from AgGeorgia.

The property was owned previously by Linda Alewine, who used it to secure a $1.3 million loan from AgGeorgia Farm Credit. She later defaulted and the cooperative foreclosed on the land.

When Oliver and fellow egg producer Don Stoner offered $425,000 for the property in late 2005, AgGeorgia officers reportedly made a counteroffer of $900,000 that included the value of two large chicken houses on the land, according to court testimony. Oliver and Stoner, believing they were among the few people able to use the chicken houses, refused to pay for the value of the structures.

AgGeorgia eventually sold the property to Alewine’s brother, Jerry Rice, for $500,000.

Oliver filed suit later in 2006, claiming the final price on the property was “grossly inadequate” and that shareholders of AgGeorgia were harmed by the sale, which he called a “waste of AgGeorgia’s assets.”

On Tuesday a jury rejected Oliver’s argument.

Jeffrey Horst, an attorney representing the two AgGeorgia corporate officers, said, “we’re delighted with the jury’s determination.”

“I think it was a classic business judgement case,” Horst said. “It was a transaction that these men handled in the ordinary course of business.”

Horst noted that the lawsuit was filed just as both men were nearing retirement. Thornton retired last year and Newberry will retire this year.

“I’m sorry this had to happen to them at the end of their careers,” Horst said. “These are decent, honest men with unquestionable integrity, and it was a privilege and an honor for me to represent them.”

Several board members for AgGeorgia Farm Credit came to watch portions of the trail in support of the defendants and a handful were on hand for the verdict.

The jury foreman declined to comment on the verdict after the trail.

Oliver said in a prepared statement, “I appreciate the way in which our justice system operates and am proud of the way that our Hall County court system is open to all citizens to resolve their disputes.

“I congratulate the defendants in prevailing in the case and hope that the concerns that motivated me to bring this suit will be of importance to AgGeorgia in its future business transactions.”