19th Century Whiskey Dealer’s Records Used in Suit

In their effort convince a federal judge to validate a $700,000 insurance claim on the former home of Howard’s Diamond Center, the jeweler’s attorneys are digging into long-ago days when liquor peddlers stored barrels of whiskey in the subterranean vaults of downtown Wheeling.

The controversy involves damage which allegedly occurred during demolition of the former Feet First building on Oct. 25, 2012, when part of that building’s wall fell onto the vacant former jewelry store, damaging the roof and all three of its floors. Hartford Fire Insurance Co. denied the resulting claim, arguing the incident was not covered by Howard’s Diamond Center’s insurance policy, and the jewelry store filed suit in March.

Part of Howard’s Diamond Center’s case revolves around the disputed existence of a common wall between its building at 1125 Market St. and the Feet First Building at 1121 Market St. The jeweler’s attorneys, David Jividen and Chad Groome, believe they have unearthed evidence that the buildings’ history together dates back to the 1800s.

An exhibit attached to the filing includes business records dating back to 1889, when the Feet First building was home to Peter Welty & Co., a wholesale liquor dealer. Those records are on letterhead that declares the business’s address as “1118 Main St. & 1121 Market St.” and includes cutaway drawings of the building’s interior. The business packed up and moved to Pittsburgh when West Virginia banned the sale of alcoholic beverages in 1914 – six years before national Prohibition began.

“It would be difficult to believe that the owner of the former Feet First building would not have known that an extension of the (Howard’s Diamond Center) building was being constructed and tied into the Feet First wall, and there is no evidence that the prior owners of the Feet First building resorted to legal measures to prevent the tie in,” the filing states.

The common wall issue is key to the lawsuit because damage caused by direct contact between a construction vehicle and the jewelry store would trigger coverage under the company’s policy. According to Hartford, that requirement was not met because the wall that was struck was that of the Feet First building – but Howard’s Diamond Center argues it was a shared wall, and therefore contact with the Feet First building also, by definition, means contact with its structure.

Parties are scheduled to meet for mediation at Feb. 19 – five days later than the deadline extension granted last month by U.S. District Judge John Preston Bailey.

As the litigation drags on, city officials – who unsuccessfully tried to buy the vacant former jewelry store several years ago – are awaiting its outcome so they can renew their pursuit of the property.