Jury deliberating on Mitchell rodeo grounds case with decision expected Friday night
The jury was to consider whether either side had a right to a material breach of the contract and what amount of financial damages a party should receive in the matter.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated following the jury's verdict late Friday night. Click here to read the decision.
MITCHELL — Nearly three years into a lawsuit involving one of Mitchell’s premier sporting events, a jury is deliberating regarding the future of the Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo and the relationship between the event organizers and the facility's owner.
A jury of 12 began deliberations shortly before 4:30 p.m. Friday in the case between Corn Palace Stampede (CPS) and its landlord Horsemen's Sports Incorporated (HSI). The trial commenced on Tuesday at the Davison County Courthouse and a decision was expected on Friday night. (An updated story on the decision will be available at mitchellrepublic.com.)
The jury had a lot to consider, deciding whether either side had a right to a material breach of the contract with the other party and what amount of financial damages a party should receive in the matter.
The genesis of the lawsuit stemmed from May 2020, shortly after CPS announced it was canceling its annual rodeo due to the COVID-19 pandemic. HSI members Paul Parr and Joel Bergeson, knowing that the rodeo wouldn’t take place for another 14 months, moved the arena fence in the southeast corner of the facility about 10 feet further out to improve the arena’s dimensions, particularly for timed rodeo events such as steer wrestling, team roping and calf roping.
To do so, HSI members removed a wooden boardwalk structure that was built near the rodeo’s VIP area to widen the arena. Members from the two groups met three times in about 10 days, with CPS upset that the boardwalk was “torn up” and without notice, and HSI arguing it was making long overdue changes to the arena it owns. Over the span of the 10 days, CPS Chairman Jim Miskimins said the attitude of HSI members went from being contrite about the changes to later being discourteous and HSI deciding to do as it pleased.
“It's our arena and we should be able to change the fence a few feet if we want,” HSI member Troy Hart testified on Thursday. “It would just make it better, I think. … We talked about what we were going to do and where we were going to put it.”
CPS has been setting up to move locations to a piece of land owned by the city of Mitchell since the lawsuit commenced. As part of the damages, CPS was asking for more than $176,000 in damages, mostly to replace the cement that bleachers would need to be placed upon at a new site, as CPS wants to move, plus to pay for the intentional damage to the property.
In his closing argument, CPS attorney Sam Nelson, of Beresford, argued that HSI was “cutting a fat hog” from its relationship with its tenant after years of CPS funded improvements.
“They got the ground for nothing, got a tenant for years who built it up, took care of it, spent a lot of money to make it a nice place. … And now the landlord wants it all,” Nelson said. “We just want to peaceably leave with our stuff.”
Defense: Rodeo charged ahead
While CPS argued about the damage it experienced from 2020’s arena changes, HSI attorney Tim Whalen, based in Lake Andes, pointed out that the Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo took place in 2021 and 2022 to great success according to the testimony of CPS members.
“If it's great, how can you sit here and complain that there's interference that keeps you from carrying on from the rodeo,” Whalen asked. “Where’s the horde of people saying it was terrible? The decline in the attendance? There wasn’t (a decline).”
Whalen pointed out that the 1992 lease between the groups clearly delineated that the arena fence was the property of HSI and therefore could be moved. He said HSI made a mere $8,500 annually off the lease with CPS, a small amount of money considering CPS has made numerous improvements to the grounds and distributed more than $160,000 in charitable donations over the years from funds raised. In his closing argument, Whalen compared CPS to a “Pacman,” trying to gobble up the little guy in the case -- HSI.
“What CPS fails to understand, this is a shared arena,” Whalen said. “They didn’t get to control everything in the rodeo grounds. They had to share it. HSI had the right to lease it to someone else if they wanted. HSI had the right to change it, as long as CPS could still have their rodeo.”
The two presidents of their respective organizations were in the courtroom all four days, with CPS' Miskimins and HSI President Brandon Neugebauer.
Miskimins testified for more than 2 1/2 hours on Thursday. As a practicing attorney, he was involved with drafting the 1992 lease between the two parties on CPS’ behalf. In that lease, it defined the existing facilities that would remain if the lease was terminated — at least one grandstand, a crow’s nest, bucking chutes, arena fencing, etc. — but that personal property of CPS could be moved.
“Because in the lease that was negotiated and signed in 1992, we clearly set out the intent of the properties,” Miskimins said. “Except for a few improvements identified in that document, everything else was personal property of CPS then and going forward.”
A 1999 lease agreed to between the two parties allowed CPS to make improvements to the facility with the prior written agreement of Horsemen’s Sports but it reads “unless such improvements be readily removed without damage to the remaining facilities, the improvements shall become part of the facility and the property of Horsemen’s Sports.”
Judge David Knoff ruled earlier in the case that the phrase “may be readily removed without damage to the remaining facilities” is ambiguous about what constitutes damage, either economically or physically. The jury was in part asked to rule on that aspect of the contract, which was later amended in 2015.
Witnesses from both sides testified about how often CPS consulted with HSI about putting up buildings or structures on the grounds, which was frequently done on a verbal basis or agreement from either side. Miskimins said that CPS consulted with HSI about their plans and was never told no.
“Nobody did anything in writing in this lease and when they did, they didn’t do it very good, did they,” Nelson said to the jury in his closing argument.
Neugebauer, whose testimony spanned Wednesday and Thursday, said he indicated he was sorry for the way the fence was initially taken down without making CPS aware but upon meeting Miskimins and another CPS member at the rodeo grounds, both sides shook hands and agreed to put it where HSI planned, and HSI vowed to put back the boardwalk however CPS wanted, but CPS later pursued legal action.
When asked why HSI didn’t put it back, Bergeson responded simply: “We got sued.”
The lawsuit has also borne disagreements about whether CPS adequately maintained the grounds as required in the current lease, including spraying for weeds, fertilizing the grass, plus whether the CPS lease-mandated tractor has been on the grounds for HSI to use when they need it. HSI’s request for damages in the case were $79,000, in part of issues regarding maintenance, lapsed insurance and the lease payments that HSI would miss out on from CPS.