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Heidelberg Distributing brother-vs. sister lawsuit stalls

A bitter legal dispute between family factions over control of Heidelberg Distributing Co. remains unresolved as both sides wait for the Ohio Supreme Court to decide whether it will hear an appeal in the case.

Although there have been decisions on both the trial court level and state court of appeals level, those decisions are effectively on hold until the Ohio Supreme Court decides whether to take the case. On April 5, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor issued a stay, which temporarily sets aside the impact of those previous decisions. No action has been taken in the case since April 5, according to the Ohio Supreme Court’s online docket.

>> RELATED: Peek inside Heidelberg Distributing

Heidelberg Distributing operates a giant warehouse for beer, wine and other products in the former Cooper Tire facility in Moraine. FILE/2013 (Staff Writer)

Attorneys for both sides declined comment on whether negotiations are ongoing for a potential settlement and on other aspects of the case.

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The lawsuit began nearly three years ago, in December 2014, when Albert Vontz III, president and co-chairman of Heidelberg Distributing, sued his sister, Carol Miller, and several of Miller’s family members whom Vontz claimed have “seized control” of the company and were “oppressing the third and fourth generations” of his family. The lawsuit alleged that the Miller family paid themselves exorbitant salaries, engaged in wasteful spending and misappropriated company assets.

Vontz and Miller are the grandchildren of Heidelberg’s founder, Albert W. Vontz, who came to Cincinnati in 1907 as a 22-year-old German immigrant and went on to launch a company that became Heidelberg Distributing.

>> RELATED: Heidelberg lawsuit still rages despite judge’s plea for reconciliation

In their sharp-edged legal response to the lawsuit, the Millers claimed Albert Vontz III “has never held a meaningful working position” with Heidelberg and “slept through or played video games on his iPad” while attending company board meetings. Vontz “is compensated at an approximate multiple of eight to 15 times higher” than the company’s CEO “for significantly less contribution to the business,” the Millers said.

Carol Miller’s family has been involved in the day-to-day operations of the beer and wine distributor. Her husband Vail Miller Sr. led the company for more than 40 years and serves as co-chairman, and son Vail Miller Jr. is currently serving as CEO. But her brother Vontz is owner of 50 percent of the voting shares of Heidelberg, and holds the titles of president and co-chairman of its board.

>> RELATED: Heidelberg Distributing scores a national ‘Top 10’ shout-out

The Hamilton County Common Pleas Court trial judge’s initial decision largely favored Vontz’s position, although it did not award him monetary damages. Members of the Miller family appealed the judge’s decision in the fall of 2015. A three-judge panel of the Ohio 1st District Court of Appeals left intact most, but not all, of the trial judge’s ruling. The judges returned the case to the trial judge for further rulings in line with the appeals court’s decision.

Miller’s family filed an appeal with the Ohio Supreme Court in March 2017. The case remains pending there, as the state supreme court weighs whether to take the case and hold a hearing on the appeal.

>> RELATED: Local distillery signs agreement to expand its footprint statewide

At stake in the lawsuit is control over one of the largest beer distributorships in the country and a significant source of philanthropy in Dayton and southwest Ohio. Heidelberg, which traces its roots to 1938, delivers Anheuser-Busch InBev products, including Budweiser beers, in Dayton and Cincinnati, and it also distributes a wide variety of wine and spirits to restaurants, bars, grocery stores and other retailers throughout Ohio and northern Kentucky.

Heidelberg spent $20 million to renovate the former Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. warehouse on Dryden Road along Interstate 75 in Moraine before moving its Dayton-area operations into that facility in 2013. The facility employs more than 300. The company operates nine warehouse and office facilities in Moraine, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Lorain, Toledo, Youngstown and northern Kentucky. In all, Heidelberg employs more than 1,600 and serves more than 26,000 retail accounts.

The company also recently scored a national shout-out from Wines & Vines Magazine, which in its September issue compiled and published a list of the top 10 wine distributors in the country — and Heidelberg made the list at number 6. The list includes some distributors that dwarf Heidelberg in size.

One person who would like to see both sides work out the dispute outside of court is the trial judge who presided over the initial case.

Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Steven E. Martin took the somewhat unusual step of writing a letter to both factions in the case prior to issuing his final ruling in late 2015. In it, Judge Martin wrote:

“This is a dispute between good people who together have inherited and then further built an enormously successful business. I encourage the parties to continue to discuss settlement. The time you spend in court is time not spent managing the business.”

“You are all very fortunate people to have a business the success of which is defined in part by people drinking alcoholic beverages, which has been going on for thousands of years. I encourage you to resolve your differences and take advantage of the unique franchise that has been bequeathed to you.”

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