OVERBY v. STATE

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Court of Appeals of Georgia.

OVERBY v. The STATE.

No. A12A0087.

-- May 02, 2012

Jad Baskin Johnson, David James Dunn Jr., for Overby. Herbert E. Franklin Jr., La Fayette, for The State.

Tracy Daniel Overby pleaded guilty to one count of arson and was sentenced to 20 years on probation. Additionally, the trial court ordered that Overby's probation would be suspended after five years if restitution was paid and, after conducting a hearing on same, ordered that restitution be paid to the victim in the amount of $63,125 in monthly increments of $270. Overby challenges the trial court's order of restitution on appeal, contending that the amount is not supported by fact or law. We agree and therefore vacate the court's award and remand for a new restitution hearing.

The record reflects that on August 9, 2010, Overby pleaded guilty to first degree arson of a dwelling owned by the victim,1 which Overby was renting. Overby apparently set fire to a sofa in the house, causing damage to the structure. At the restitution hearing, the victim testified that her husband purchased the land and built the home himself in 2001, that she charged between $350 and $500 per month in rent (which was her sole source of income), that she sold the home after the fire for approximately $3,000, and that she only wanted restitution for the loss of the home and rental income.

As to the damage caused by the fire, the victim testified that the fire was between the living room and kitchen; that the wall, carpet, and floor were damaged; that the entire house suffered smoke damage; and that although the home did not burn down, it was so “messed up” that she could not afford the necessary repairs. However, the victim also admitted that she did not attempt to make any repairs to the dwelling.

In addition to the victim's testimony, the State presented the testimony of a tax appraiser for the county, who assessed the subject property in 2008—prior to the fire—at a fair market value of $63,125. The appraiser did not recall returning to the property after the fire but testified to driving past it, based on his records, and thinking that the house had burned down because he could not remember seeing a home on the property at that time. Nevertheless, he opined that the house was worth nothing after the fire.2

In response, Overby presented the testimony of a certified real estate appraiser who lives near the home and who gave his opinion as to its value and the estimated cost to repair the damage. And Overby testified regarding his state of employment (that being unemployed at the time of the hearing), limited source of income through side jobs, lack of assets, lack of a high school diploma or GED, and attempts at finding employment. At the end of the hearing, the State requested that the court award the victim the lost value of the home and lost rental income. Thereafter, the court issued an order in which it awarded $63,125 in restitution to the victim, also noting that it regarded the opinion of Overby's expert as unreliable due to his former relation to Overby through marriage. This appeal by Overby follows.

At the outset, we note that a trial court determines the proper amount and type of restitution by a preponderance of the evidence.3 The State bears the burden of demonstrating “the amount of the loss sustained by a victim as a result of the offense,”4 and the amount of restitution ordered by the trial court “may be equal to or less than, but not more than, the victim's damages.”5 As to the offender, he or she bears the burden of demonstrating his or her financial resources, including the needs of any dependents.6

On appeal from an order of restitution, we review the record “to determine whether each party has met his or her specified burden and whether a restitution award was supported by the preponderance of the evidence.”7 And pursuant to the restitution statute, with certain exceptions not applicable in this case, “a victim of property damage is entitled to all special damages which a victim could recover against an offender in a civil action based on the same act or acts for which the offender is sentenced.”8 With these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to Overby's sole enumeration of error.

Overby contends on appeal that the trial court used an improper method to calculate damages, looking to the diminution in value of the subject property as opposed to the cost of repairing the house and, accordingly, that the State presented insufficient evidence of damages because there was no evidence of repair costs. We are constrained to agree.

Here, the victim claimed only that her house was damaged, not that the house and lot were damaged. It is well established that the “[c]ost of repairs is the appropriate measure of damages if the injury is to the building alone,”9 which is a rule that dates back to an 1887 opinion by our Supreme Court.10 And the application of this rule contrasts with situations in which injury is alleged to both a building and the property on which it stands. In such cases, “[t]he correct measure of damages for injury to realty is the difference in the value of the property before and after the injury.”11

There is, however, an exception to the general rule, that being that the measurement of damages by repair or restoration costs is limited when restoring a building to its condition at the time of destruction would be “absurd.”12 Indeed, “[t]he cost of restoration may not be disproportionate to the diminution in the property's value” and instead “must be reasonable and bear some proportion to the injury sustained.”13 Thus, we have applied this exception—instead calculating damages according to diminution in value—when buildings were in poor condition prior to destruction or when they have been completely destroyed, such that repairing or restoring the buildings would result in an inflated measure of damages and thus be absurd.14

And here, as noted supra, the victim sought restitution only for damage to her home. Thus, the proper measure of damages was the cost to repair the home, unless such an undertaking was absurd, in which case diminution in value would be appropriate. But the State failed to present evidence of repair cost—save the victim's vague testimony that she could not afford to repair the home—and there was likewise no indication that repair of the home would be an absurd undertaking. Instead, the State's evidence focused on the testimony of a tax appraiser who opined as to the diminution in the home's value after the fire. Accordingly, the State failed to meet its burden of proof by presenting insufficient evidence as to the amount of restitution, and the trial court's order must be vacated and the case remanded for a new restitution hearing.15

Judgment vacated and case remanded with direction.

DILLARD, Judge.

ELLINGTON, C.J., and PHIPPS, P.J., concur.

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