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Foundation Wins Dispute|Over Jefferson’s Furniture

(CN) - The Thomas Jefferson Foundation need not face a second trial for claims over restoration work on furniture believed to have been owned by the third president, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled.

The foundation runs a museum at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's historic home in Virginia. Its visitors can view items that belonged to Jefferson, as well as "period pieces" from his lifetime.

Emma Jordan inherited two pieces of furniture thought to be previously owned by Jefferson - a filing press and a dressing table - in the mid-1970s. The press was on loan to the foundation at the time, and Jordan lent the dressing table to the museum as well, according to court records.

While the Jordan family initially gave the foundation permission to perform conservation work on the dressing table, later documents prohibited such work on the furniture without permission.

However, by the time those documents were signed in the late 1980s, the foundation had performed restorative work on both furniture pieces.

Thirty years later, the Jordan family removed the pieces from Monticello and had them shipped to Sotheby's, an auction house in New York City.

Researchers at Sotheby's could not verify that the dressing table had actually been owned by Jefferson. The Jordans say it is undisputed that the filing press once belonged to the third U.S. president.

Sotheby's declined to place the items for auction, finding that the dressing table's value had been "destroyed," court records show.

The Jordan family claimed that the filing press would have been worth nearly $4 million, rather than the $20,000 to $30,000 valuation given by Sotheby's.

After the foundation declined to buy the items, the Jordan family sued it for negligence, breach of contract and tortuous interference.

A DeKalb County, Ala., court ruled in the foundation's favor but later granted the family's motion for a new trial. The foundation appealed.

On Feb. 12, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed the decision to grant a new trial. Justice James Allen Main ruled that the lower court shouldn't have reopened the case based on the Jordan family's claim that the foundation did not disclose its insurance coverage.

Main noted that the foundation's counsel "answered in the negative" when asked if insurance coverage existed in this case.

"Curiously, the plaintiffs' counsel remained silent after TJF's counsel's response, despite the fact that it is undisputed that plaintiffs' counsel was, at that very moment, in physical possession of TJF's insurance policy, which had been obtained during discovery, and that the insurance policy was listed on both sides' respective exhibit lists," Main wrote for the Yellowhammer State's supreme court.

He added that the Jordans' failure to object to the court's decision not to conduct voir dire on the insurance issue means that they "waived that issue both in the trial court and at the appellate level."

Main also ruled in the foundation's favor for the Jordans' claim that they were "deprived of the opportunity to seek advice from any furniture conservation or appraisal experts" by the foundation's alleged suppression of the fact that it had restored the furniture pieces.

"We agree with TJF, however, that the suppression claim is barred by the 20-year rule of repose and was thus properly dismissed," Main wrote.

Justice Glenn Murdoch wrote a concurring opinion, which stated in its entirety, "I question whether the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Inc. had sufficient contacts with the State of Alabama to give the trial court personal jurisdiction over it."

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