Hobbyists aren't playing around in suing over model train's value

Staff writerFebruary 22, 2014 

The Corkscrew Northern Railroad carried four decades of emotional freight. Passion built its 35 bridges and 375 feet of twisting track.

The model railroad, a small marvel of construction, covered a good-size kitchen table at its birth in 1980. By 1991, it sprawled to 1,000 square feet. The assembly traveled on a flatbed truck, displayed at the Puyallup Fair and Seattle’s Pacific Science Center, among other places.

Now it’s gone: dismantled, parted out and dumped in November 2012, the casualty of a still-unsettled misunderstanding between a pair of Pierce County hobbyists and the Boys & Girls Club of South Puget Sound.

What’s it worth? What would it cost to rebuild it?

According to a lawsuit filed Feb. 7 in Pierce County Superior Court by Ken Gentili and Marion Skip Young-Frack, the answer is $870,000.

The suit names the Boys & Girls Club and Pemco Mutual Insurance. It’s the latest turn in a stalled negotiation. Gentili said the legal move was nothing new — just a necessary step toward compensation he and Young-Frack believe they’re owed.

“We weren’t getting very good values and appraisals,” Gentili said. “The appraisals coming in were pretty poor.”

A Boys & Girls Club spokeswoman said Friday that the matter was moving through the legal system and that agency leaders had no comment.

The gist of the argument hinges on a 21-month stretch between January 2011, when Boys & Girls Club leaders asked Gentili to find a new home for the railroad, and November 2012, when club leaders got rid of it. Originally displayed at the club and used as a teaching tool for hobbyists and young people, the vast model gradually became a white elephant, unused and languishing in storage.

Gentili and Young-Frack knew the club wanted the railroad moved from an outbuilding at the Gonyea branch. In January 2012, the club reportedly asked Gentili and Young-Frack to move the railroad within six months.

Gentili and Young-Frack tried to make arrangements to do so, but it took longer than six months. They say they brokered a potential arrangement with the LeMay Family Collection Foundation in Tacoma. They didn’t know the railroad had been destroyed.

“The plaintiffs did not discover the unauthorized destruction and dispersal of the CSN (Corskscrew Northern) until February 2013,” the lawsuit states. “All attempts by the plaintiffs seeking information to recover or locate the CSN or portions thereof have been rebuffed by the Boys & Girls Club.”

That started a new argument that lasted another year: compensation.

Gentili filed a claim with Pemco, which carries his homeowner insurance. The policy included coverage for the loss of the railroad.

According to the lawsuit, Pemco offered two appraisals. The numbers are not given in the suit — but Gentili disagreed with them.

“(The first) appraisal was based on a substantial amount of speculation and was based on incomplete information,” the lawsuit states. “The appraisal concluded that the railroad was worth substantially less than it actually was.”

The second appraisal came from a hobby train collector, the lawsuit states.

“(The collector) also arrived at a similar and unreasonably low overall value for the CSN based on such anecdotal data as playing with trains in his teens, a personal friend’s train set, unspecified Internet research and his own emotional response to his personal project’s destruction,” the lawsuit states.

According to Gentili’s suit, Pemco offered to settle the claim for the amount in the second appraisal. Gentili declined. His suit alleges his insurer negotiated in bad faith, adding that the actions of the Boys & Girls Club represented unlawful conversion of personal property.

Part of the problem was the missing railroad itself. Worked on by the two hobbyists and other modelers over 20 years, it was a vast structure, immensely detailed — but the damage couldn’t be measured in the conventional way, such as an examination of a totaled car. Appraisals required a certain amount of guesswork.

Gentili intended to take photos of the model as he prepared to hand it off to the LeMay foundation — but he couldn’t take pictures of a missing railroad.

Though the suit looks like a confrontational step, Gentili said it’s more of a housekeeping matter. Under the terms of his policy, he and Young-Frack must seek legal redress within a year of the loss.

“We were somewhat limited by my insurance policy,” he said. “If there’s going to be any compensation, we’ve got to pursue within a year. There isn’t really anything to report. Right now it’s just kind of a motion.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 sean.robinson@ thenewstribune.com @seanrobinsonTNT

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