Arson Fires

Even in Grand Prairie, Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, Euless, Bedford, Hurst, Saginaw, Roanoke, Keller, Grapevine, and other locations in the Metroplex area, arson fires occur. One of the first things an insurance company is always going to do when there is a fire claim is investigate for the possibility of arson. If the insurance company determines a fire is arson, the next thing they will do is see if the insureds’ under the insurance policy are responsible or have a motive to set the fire. Of course by this time, the insured needs to be consulting with an experienced Insurance Law Attorney.
A 1987, case from the Dallas Court of Appeals styled, Texas General Indemnity Company v. Jerry L. Speakman and Donald E. Coffman, is interesting based on the facts in the case. There are a lot of legal procedures in the case, which will not be discussed because they are unusual and hard to follow without a lot of legal knowledge. But briefly on the legal aspects, the trial was to the Judge instead of a jury and the Judge ruled in favor of the insurance company. Coffman and Speakman filed a “motion to correct judgment or for new trial” and a “first amended motion to correct judgment or for a new trial.” Surprisingly the Judge reversed his earlier decision and ruled against the Texas General Indemnity Company. He awarded close to $200,000 to the insureds. This appeals court upheld the trial court decision with some modification to the money.
Here are some of the facts in this case.
Speakman and Coffman jointly owned a house in Tool, Texas, which was destroyed by fire on December 31, 1983. They had left the house about three months earlier to live at a townhouse in Dallas which they purchased together. On the morning of December 31, 1983, they returned to the house and visited Coffman’s mother who lived across the street from the house. They also visited two neighbors before returning to the house about 4:30 – 5:00 p.m. While visiting the neighbors, they made a decision to stay the night in the house and the neighbors gave them two five gallon jugs of water because the pipes were frozen and none of the homes in the area had running water. Speakman borrowed the neighbors van and left for Dallas at about 5:30 or 5:45, in order to get his dog that was in the Dallas townhouse. Coffman took his mother out to eat and to buy groceries and got back to her house about 9:15 or 9:30 p.m. He helped his mother unload groceries then went across the street at approximately 9:30 p.m. He testified that he was going to get one of the five gallon jugs of water for his mother because he and Speakman would not use two five-gallon jugs in just one night. He testified that he opened his front door and “smoke just boiled out of the entry hall of the house.” He did not recall if the door was locked but that he normally kept it locked. He returned to his mother’s and called the fire department who arrived about ten to twelve minutes later. The firemen entered the house with masks and equipment and put out the fire in about 30 to 35 minutes. The firemen determined the fire had originated in a back bedroom which is where the fire was confined. But there was smoke damage throughout the house. The firemen had opened all 32 windows in the house and chopped up a portion of the bedroom floor to ascertain whether the fire had spread below the floor. The firemen told Coffman to check the house every hour to see if the fire rekindled during the night.
Speakman arrived about twenty minutes later and they and the dog returned to Coffman’s mother’s house. As they were discussing the nights events, the mother noticed the house was on fire again. The fire department arrived at about 11:15 and finally extinguished the second fire. The entire house and contents were destroyed except for a painting that hung near the doorway.
Coffman and Speakman testified that they did not keep anything unusually dangerous or inflammatory in their home. They also testified they had lit four or five candles earlier to remove the dank smell from the house being “tied up.” Plus, the house contained a wet bar that was well stocked. The garage was used for storage and was full enough that a car would not fit into it, unless things were removed.
The house was worth about $90,000 more than it was insured for and the content loss exceeded the insurance value by about $7,000.
Neither Coffman nor Speakman appeared to have any financial problems.
The chief of the Tool Volunteer Fire Department was Bill Forrester who was also a Dallas Fire Department employee of twenty-seven years. Forrester had assisted with both fires and after the first fire had sent someone to the attic to make certain the fire had not spread to the attic but could not recall who he sent. He was not able to determine how the first fire originated. He did recall seeing flames shooting out of the roof upon arrival to the second fire. During the course of the fire, he went to the rear of the house where the garage door was down and locked. When it was opened, he recalled seeing a “pretty blue flame” that would not extinguish. He opined that the second fire was incendiary. He said the blue flame he saw was caused by petro-chemicals. On cross examination he admitted the second fire could have been a rekindle of the first fire and that the garage was not filled with smoke in an amount disproportionate to the flame involved as is common with petrochemical induced flame.
Travis Roberts, Fire Marshall for the City of Athens, testified that Forester called him to assist in an investigation regarding the Tool fire. Roberts testified that he had been involved in fire fighting for seventeen years and that he had considerable training and experience in arson investigations. He took three samples from different areas in the house that appeared to have strange “burn patterns” but lab results reported no traces of any flammable liquid . Roberts stilled testified that evidence regarding “burn patterns” suggested the presence of an accelerant. He also testified that “rekindles” sometimes occur despite the best efforts of firefighters.
Donald Owen testified that he was a member of the Tool Volunteer Fire Department and that he helped fight both fires in question. Owen testified that he never observed anyone check the attic after the first fire. Owen testified that he was the firefighter who chopped out the panels in the garage door during the second fire and that he did not notice a blue flame on the garage floor. Owen testified that if there had been a blue flame he would have noticed. Owen testified that he wasn’t particularly looking for types of flames but was instead concentrating on fire fighting and that if, in fact, Forrester was near the garage and observed a blue flame, he, Owen, would have no reason to doubt Forester. Owen testified that it was his experience that rekindles sometimes do occur.
Also testifying was an expert in origins of fires, Kal Britt McManus, who was the president of Loss Research and Analysis, Inc. (LRA), and that LRA was employed by Texas General Indemnity Insurance Company. He testified that both fires were arsons.
McManus testified on cross examination that he did not know of the well stocked bar at the time of his investigations. Nor did he know of the candles burning in the house prior to the first fire. He also testified about “spalling marks” being common in arson fires but there were no “spalling marks” in this fire. He did not indicate in his report anything about wind conditions but did know that thirty two windows had been left open after the first fire. McManus did not investigate who set the fires.
Coffman’s mother testified and backed-up Coffman’s version of events. She also testified that she never noticed the smell of any accelerant.
All the above gives one a small insight into what testimony can be in a suspected arson fire. The insurance company will hire fire origin experts. Residue of the fire will be sent to the lab for analysis. Fire fighters will be interviewed. Neighbors will be interviewed. The financial position of the insured will be investigated.
None of this is a pleasant experience.