Fifth District affirms Knight in property damage claim pitting brother v. brother

Ann Maher May 17, 2012, 9:00am


Justices at the Fifth District have affirmed Circuit Judge John Knight who denied a new trial to a plaintiff who claimed a $100,000 jury award was "palpably inadequate."

"Because the jury considered the weight to be given to contested evidence, its verdict was not against the manifest weight of the evidence," wrote Justice Richard Goldenhersh in a Rule 23 order issued May 17.

The case involved plaintiff Clarence Potthast, Jr. who sued his brother, Allen Potthast, over a fire caused by the use of a defective power cord.

According to background information contained in the order, Allen Potthast in December 2006 turned on power in a sawmill, and then used one of his brother's power cords - which was defective in that it had previously overheated - to heat his tractor overnight. He exited the sawmill leaving the defective cord plugged in despite his knowledge that his brother always kept the power to the sawmill off for safety purposes, the order states.

The sawmill caught fire, destroying the building as well as stored wood, equipment and tools.

On appeal, Clarence Potthast, Jr. claimed the fire resulted in more than $500,000 of damage to his property and that the jury ignored or disregarded uncontradicted evidence to that effect.

At trial, Clarence Potthast, Jr. argued that the wood in the saw mill alone was worth more than $500,000 if sold in bulk but that if various types of wood were sold individually, the total sale would result in close to $1 million in proceeds.

He further testified that the equipment stored in the sawmill at the time of the fire was worth more than $54,000, putting a head rig's value at $80,000 and a wood chipper's at $26,000. He also testified that the sawmill building itself was worth more than $30,000.

However, Allen Potthast at trial called a professional real estate appraiser and auctioneer who testified that the value of the equipment at the time of the fire was approximately $54,316 and the value of the building and real estate would be $19,000.

"The essence of plaintiff's argument is that the verdict of the jury was against the manifest weight of the evidence, that evidence being the uncontradicted testimony of plaintiff as to the value of the building and its contents that were destroyed in the fire," Goldenhersh wrote.

"Defendant's argument is that this evidence was contradicted and contested and that the jury was appropriately allowed to determine the weight to be given to this contested evidence and made a decision which was not against the manifest weight of the evidence. We agree with defendant."

Justices James Donovan and James Wexstten concurred.

Knight presides at Bond County, which is part of the Third Judicial Circuit.

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