Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Warm Springs trial opens

Damages hearing may last 10 days

Express Staff Writer

Following several days of pretrial hearings, a 14-member jury—12 jurors and two alternates—was selected Tuesday, Jan. 24, to hear damages claims stemming from the purchase and sale of the Warm Springs Ranch property, west of Ketchum.

The trial pits two former business partners against each other: George William Tischer, as a trustee of the Tischer Family Trust, is suing Stephen Roth, owner of Sun Valley Ventures, for damages relating to an alleged breach of contract.

Tischer maintains that Roth violated the allocation requirements of a settlement agreement by distributing proceeds unfairly, resulting in a breach of fiduciary duty.

According to attorney Todd Miller, representing Tischer, jurors will be asked: what does a contract require and how does a settlement agreement work?

Fifth District Judge Robert Elgee in the days preceding the trial ruled on multiple motions, deciding, among other things, what evidence could be presented to the jury and what witnesses can be called to testify.

In one of the more contentious issues, the judge told parties' attorneys he was upset by an ad Tischer placed last week in local papers regarding the relocation of elk from the Warm Springs Ranch property.

"It was very aggravating to me in a trial of this magnitude ... for both sides," Elgee said. "There are a lot of issues, huge claims. For somebody to put an ad in the paper right before the trial, then to say it was inadvertent. I'll use the term aggravating. I don't know how to deal with that. We're in unfamiliar territory."

Lead counsel for Tischer, Walter Bithell, said his client did not place the ad in an attempt to taint the jury pool, and that its timing was coincidental.

"The ad was not placed in any attempt whatsoever to affect the outcome of this litigation," Bithell said during pretrial motions Friday. "The elk are not part of this litigation."

The judge, however, was unconvinced.

"I think that's baloney," he said. "This was or is an attempt to inflame or influence the jury against Sun Valley Ventures.

He noted that a change of venue in order to find jurors who hadn't seen the ad would work in favor of Tischer's side. Options such as using fewer than 12 jurors if the adequate number of uninfluenced people could not be found or switching to a court trial were not less than desirable.

Parties have a right to trial by jury and to have 12 jurors hear cases in District Court. But because Tischer was responsible for the "problem," Elgee said the court would retain those as possible sanctions.

After discussing the matter at length Friday and Monday, Elgee opted to instruct jurors that they must disregard the ad and any claims in it.

Keith Roark, lead attorney for Roth, queried prospective jurors Tuesday whether they had seen the ad and if it would influence their feelings about either side.

After an all-day jury selection process, both parties agreed upon 14 jurors.

Tischer and Roth were partners in Warm Springs Ranch and Restaurant LLC, but reached a settlement wherein Roth was established as a partner in Sun Valley Ventures.

In early 2003, Sun Valley Ventures bought the 77-acre property in northwest Ketchum, prompting allegations from Tischer that his contract was violated.

Similar allegations were brought forward by Sun Valley Ventures, resulting in a complex array of lawsuits over ownership, monetary interests and damage claims that have been bouncing around in court for years.

Opening statements in the jury trial begin today.

The trial is expected to last 10 days.

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