What Do Homeowners with Fire Damage Claims Need to Know about the Arson Defense?

Property owners purchase homeowners insurance to protect against a litany of hazards that can damage their property.  Fire can be a particularly destructive force often completely leveling a home.  Damage caused by fire is covered under standard homeowner insurance policies in Florida, but this does not mean that insurance companies do not pull out all the stops to justify denial of a claim.  Insurance claims based on fire damage can be complicated when insurance companies attempt to avoid paying a claim by threatening to pursue arson charges against a policyholder.  Although insurers often make such threats just to scare off policyholders, insurers often use “the arson defense” during litigation.

While the specific showing required to establish this defense will be based on state law, the Texas case of State Farm v. Vandiver provides an example of how this defense works.  In Vandiver, the appellate court indicated that the arson defense requires the insurance company to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the insured “caused” or “set” the fire.  The court indicated that proof of this affirmative defense involves establishing the following elements: (1) fire of incendiary origin; (2) motive to start the fire; and (3) opportunity to start the fire or other circumstances that link the insured to the fire.  The court noted that this type of circumstantial evidence is appropriate because arson “being in defiance of law, is ordinarily conceived in secrecy and executed in such a manner to avoid detection and exposure.”

The homeowner in the case filed a lawsuit against the insurer to obtain compensation for destruction of her home caused by fire.  The insurer denied the claim and asserted the arson defense as one of its justifications for refusing to pay the claim.  The court began its analysis by noting that no dispute existed that the fire had an incendiary cause. 

The court then turned to evidence presented indicating the insured had an opportunity to start the fire or other circumstances that linked the insured to the fire.  The court noted that witness accounts were conflicting to some extent with the sister of the insured being the only person who could place the insured somewhere other than the home when the fire broke out.  Neighbors also testified that the insured’s dogs usually bark when strangers are present, and the dogs did not bark the day of the fire.  The insurer also presented evidence of a prior claim made by the insured for damage to a barn that was destroyed by fire.  According to the insurance company, the cause of the barn fire could not be established.  The court ruled that all of this evidence taken together could support a conclusion that the insured caused the fire.

According to the court, the insured’s financial circumstances indicated that the policyholder had a motive to cause the fire.  Evidence was presented that the insured was experiencing severe financial hardships at the time of the fire.  The monthly expenses incurred by the insured exceeded the policyholder’s monthly income.  These financial challenges were compounded by the fact that the insured’s live-in boyfriend was unemployed and that the policyholder was helping her paramour with child support payments.  The insured was also saddled with $5,000 in unauthorized credit card charges incurred on her credit cards by a relative.

While the court ruled that under all the surrounding circumstances, the evidence established the arson defense, policyholders should note that this evidence is far from compelling.  The evidence that is missing might seem as compelling as the evidence that was presented.  The presence of evidence that the fire was intentionally set and physical evidence linking the insured to the fire was non-existent.  The willingness of the court to recognize the arson defense based on less than convincing circumstantial evidence makes it imperative to seek legal advice when pursuing a fire damage claim.

My law firm represents policyholders in fire damage claims disputes in Miami and throughout Florida.  The Law Firm of J.P. Gonzalez-Sirgo, P.A. offers free consultations and case evaluations with an experienced Miami fire insurance claims attorney.  No Recovery, No Lawyer Fees.  Call 305-461-1095 or Toll Free 1-866-71-CLAIM.

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