Who will pay stolen backhoe impoundment?

LISBON — This is the story of a stolen backhoe and whether Perry Township trustees or an insurance company will pay the $40,000-plus impoundment bill incurred while the equipment was being held as evidence.

The story begins with Danny L. Koster, 65, West Pine Lake Road, Salem, who was charged with receiving stolen property after he was found attempting to sell a backhoe stolen from a Pittsburgh company. Koster later pleaded guilty as charged and is scheduled to sentenced on Feb. 9.

The backhoe was seized as evidence by Perry Township police and stored at Sinsley Towing beginning in March 2017, with Sinsley charging the township $65 a day. In April 2018, after all parties agreed that a photograph of the backhoe would suffice as evidence, Judge C. Ashley Pike ordered the backhoe be released to the owner, Erie Insurance, which took title after it compensated the Pittsburgh company for the loss of the backhoe.

However, Sinsley would not release the backhoe until the storage fee was paid, and the dispute is over who is responsible for the bill, which reached $40,170 as of Nov. 12. Pike agreed with Erie Insurance’s interpretation of the law — that it was not responsible because the township and police department had primary control over the backhoe, and the company was an innocent third party to the proceedings.

On July 12, Pike again ordered the release of the backhoe to Erie, and when that did not happen because of the still unpaid bill, the insurance company filed a motion asking that township police Chief Mike Emigh be held in contempt of court for refusing to abide by the judge’s decree. When the issue was not resolved at a Nov. 9 hearing, another was scheduled for this week.

Pike said this week it is clear that Emigh does not have legal control over the backhoe, so the contempt issue was set aside. Attorney David Barbee, representing Erie Insurance, indicated the ultimate responsibility lies with the township trustees.

“The problem is the court order is not being carried out by the responsible party,” he said.

The attorney for the trustees said they too were an innocent victim in this dispute. “This goes under ‘no good deed goes unpunished.’ You do what you’re supposed to do and then you end up with a big bill,” he said.

Since Erie Insurance was considering taking legal action, Pike suggested the parties take the opportunity to discuss whether they can resolve the dispute. The owner of Sinsley Towing attended the Nov. 9 meeting, but officials said he was unwilling to take anything less than what he was owed, but he may be approached again in attempt to reach a settlement.

If the parties cannot resolve the issue on their own, Pike intends to schedule another hearing.