Jewelry Store Owners Claim Defense Witness Helps Their Case

WHEELING – The owners of a severely damaged downtown Wheeling building who are suing their insurance company in federal court claim the company’s own expert witness contradicts its justification for refusing to pay for those damages.

Howard’s Diamond Center sued Hartford Fire Insurance Co. in federal court last year for refusing to pay a claim related to damage done to their 1125 Market St. building on Oct. 25, 2012, during a city demolition project. The jewelers, whose Wheeling building has been vacant since moving to The Highlands in 2010, say the structure is a total loss.

To date, Howard’s Diamond Center has sued neither Dore and Associates nor the city – which hopes to purchase the property after the lawsuit is resolved and include it in the parcel of land in the 1100 block between Main and Market streets that the city plans to market for development.

The relevant section of Howard’s Diamond Center’s policy with Hartford requires “physical contact” of a vehicle with the covered property, or contact by “an object thrown up by a vehicle.” The insurance company claims neither of those conditions was met because the construction vehicle struck the Feet First building, resulting in bricks falling onto the former jewelry store, rather than being “thrown up.”

However, Howard’s Diamond Center asserts the buildings share a common wall tied together by steel beams on the third floor, and the facts do not support the contention that the Feet First wall simply collapsed onto its building.

Joseph Cherichetti, a structural engineer called in by the insurance company to inspect the scene, testified that the bricks likely traveled at least five to six feet in the air, some of which were found another building away, on the roof of the Vocelli Pizza building.

“By its own admission, Mr. Cherichetti’s opinions were relied upon by … (Hartford) in its decision to extend or reject coverage for the loss,” Howard’s Diamond Center attorneys wrote in a Jan. 3 filing.

The jewelry store’s filing also points to inconsistencies in the accounts of three witnesses who gave depositions – Cherichetti and two Dore and Associates employees, Mike Green and Rodney Zimmerman.

But, the filing argues, “there is, at least, one relevant consistency throughout the drastically differing testimony of the three witnesses deposed in this matter as to how the loss occurred. … Each one recounted that a construction vehicle set off a chain of events that resulted in a section of common wall being projected onto or flipped onto the plaintiff’s covered property.”

The jeweler’s insurance policy lists coverage $647,000 for building replacement, $25,000 for debris removal and $16,400 for personal property damage. However, the building was appraised at about $68,000 in 2008 – when the business was still in operation there – and its most recent assessed value was about $29,500.