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A Million Bucks: The Value of Being Labeled a “Filthy Word”

Meeting Andrew

Recently, I was privileged to spend a month in trial with my friend, Attorney Lenny Isaac. Our client was Andrew Riley, whom Lenny had been representing against Travelers Insurance in a complex case that spanned several years. Travelers had denied Andrew’s insurance claim for an electrical fire that occurred in his home. It based its denial on an exclusion in the policy that excludes coverage for intentionally set fires. Travelers labeled Andrew an “arsonist”, plunging him into a years-long fight to clear his good name.

Travelers is one of the largest insurance companies in the country. It collects a significant amount of premium dollars as consideration for peace of mind in the event tragedy befalls its insureds. The company has a fire “laboratory” in Windsor, Connecticut that is off-limits to the pubic – kept under lock and key and outfitted with a sophisticated security system. The lab houses fire investigators, chemists, electrical engineers, and a “top dog” director in charge of overseeing this team of experts.

The Fire at the Riley Home

On a cold February day in 2009, Andrew was in the sunroom on the first floor of his house with a propane gas fireplace providing heat. The house, built around 1880, was drafty and poorly heated. He was working, deep in thought with earbuds inserted, when the phone rang. It was ADT advising him that his fire alarm was going off. Andrew immediately searched for the fire and located it in a second-floor bedroom, which he and his wife had converted into an exercise room containing a NordicTrack, weight machine, boxes of family photos, computers, and other keepsakes and memorabilia. Like other parts of the house, the bedroom was drafty, and Andrew heated it with a kerosene heater. He closed the bedroom door – something he learned to do in elementary school. He grabbed his wife’s jewelry box and told ADT to send help.

When the firefighters arrived, Andrew informed them the house was well-insured and that their safety was his top priority. After the firefighters put out the fire, they found a blue kerosene container in the exercise room, lying on its side and leaking kerosene. The heater was nearby. A firefighter picked up the container and put it in the second-floor bathtub.

The Fire Marshal arrived at the scene. After studying the burn patterns, he ordered the removal of a section of a wall to inspect the wiring. The part of the wall he identified was based on his analysis of a “V” burn pattern, leading to his suspicion that the fire started in the wall. As he suspected, the electrical wire in the very section of the wall he had identified had arced. In his opinion, this was the source of the fire’s origin.

Travelers’ Investigation and Accusation of Arson

When Andrew reported the fire, Travelers assigned a fire investigator to his claim. A former New York City police officer and NYC Fire Marshal with arrest powers, the fire investigator arrived at Andrew’s house the day after the fire. The investigator took pictures, poked around, and essentially cross-examined Andrew about the fire. Despite the Fire Marshal’s finding, the Travelers’ investigator was undeterred. He discovered the kerosene container in the bathtub and directed Andrew to take it to the barn.

The investigator left Andrew’s house as night fell. The kerosene container was leaking and, having just experienced a fire in his house, Andrew was uncomfortable leaving a leaking kerosene container in his wood floor barn. He removed it from the barn, emptied it, and left it upside down in the yard. The next morning, Andrew’s wife recalled seeing the container outside in the yard. This testimony directly contradicted that of the fire investigator, who claimed he took a vial of kerosene from the emptied container.

Throughout the following week, the Travelers investigator returned to Andrew’s home to take samples of carpeting, cardboard boxes, the kerosene heater and blue container, the bedroom door, light fixtures, wiring from within the wall, a wall sconce, insulation, and many other items from the house. Travelers’ lawyer, an electrical engineer, and the Travelers lab director all visited Andrew’s home. Many people walked around the room where the container leaked, contaminating the scene.

Travelers’ lawyers questioned both Andrew and his wife under oath. The fire investigator also took a recorded statement from Andrew. Travelers requested financial documents – which Andrew produced – that eliminated any financial motive he might have had to intentionally set his house ablaze.

In the end, Travelers sent Andrew a letter denying his claim based on its conclusion that he intentionally set his house on fire – the very definition of an “arsonist.” Travelers labeled Andrew an arsonist without providing any foundation or evidence. The company did not deny Andrew’s wife’s claim, asserting she was an innocent co-insured. It paid her over $600,000 for her personal property lost in the fire, as well as the damage to her house. Andrew maintained that Travelers grossly undervalued the true value of the damage to his house.

Andrew’s Case against Travelers

Andrew is an extremely determined and passionate person. Some would argue he is stubborn. He is very bright and articulate with a thirst for knowledge. My co-counsel, Lenny, is an expert in this area of the law – highly articulate and dedicated to his clients. He also has more patience than anyone I have ever met. He was the Chairman of the Litigation Section of the Connecticut Bar Association from 2011-2013. Lenny worked Andrew’s case tirelessly. He took meticulous depositions, entering each one fully prepared and with a superb understanding of the expert’s subject matter. Lenny’s masterful job during the depositions was invaluable to our pursuit of justice for Andrew.

It took five years and three months after the fire for Andrew to meet the members of the jury selected to decide his fate. During those five long, tortuous years, and after spending large sums of money on litigation, experts, and court reporter fees, Andrew was hopeful. He hoped that the six jurors picked to decide his case would do something Travelers had refused to do: listen to him.

Opening statements were delivered on June 3rd. Our case in chief included the introduction of almost sixty exhibits, the ADT dispatcher, the Fire Marshal, a firefighter who helped extinguish the fire, our origin and cause expert, Andrew, his wife, his daughter, and his next door neighbor.

We proved our case for breach of contract in the brief, focused, and powerful testimony of these witnesses. Our evidence showed:

  • That a contract of insurance was in place at the time of the fire,
  • That Andrew had fully performed his obligations by making all premium payments,
  • That Travelers had breached by refusing to pay, and
  • That Andrew suffered damages.

We also pursued a second claim based on negligent infliction of emotional distress. The damage aspect of this claim was supported by presenting powerful testimony from Andrew about he felt after being labeled an arsonist.

Andrew’s neighbor and family members painted a full picture of the person Andrew is and the stress he suffered as a result of Travelers’ decisions. We showed the jury charred and partially burnt exhibits, such as a baby sonogram and Wall Street mementos. These items, which had once captured precious moments in Andrew’s life, were shown to the jury. His wife testified that her large bonus check had also been in the room and had to be replaced by her employer. The Rileys’ testimony was truthful and sincere. Their daughter’s testimony was real and credible. Andrew’s neighbor spoke of the changes he observed in Andrew after the nightmare with Travelers began, which offered a unique, objective perspective.

As Lenny said to me from my earliest involvement in the case, the key to winning lay in proving to the jury that the evidence Travelers’ investigators claimed to have removed from the scene for testing in their lab lacked reliability. We offered chain of custody documents (and, later, trial testimony) to show that the Travelers’ investigators misrepresented where they took evidence, the date they gathered it, and who collected it. Our task was to show that Travelers’ lab personnel, who claimed to have followed proper protocol, actually failed to observe the most rudimentary chain of custody procedures. We further set out to prove that test results from the lab did not support Travelers’ theory that Andrew poured kerosene around the room and set it on fire. Rather, we were determined to prove that evidence taken from the home actually supported the Fire Marshal’s opinion that the fire started in the wall when an electrical wire arced. We also endeavored to highlight the peculiar fact that none of the Travelers’ lab testing – which actually supported the Fire Marshal’s opinion – was memorialized in Travelers’ records. Travelers does not require its investigators to prepare formal reports or to even enter raw data in its computers. The failure of Travelers’ investigators to issue reports supporting their lab findings was especially troubling, and we aimed to expose this lack of transparency to the jury.

We rested our case, and the defense began calling witnesses. The defense lawyer, well-versed in fire litigation and possessing a long-standing relationship with Travelers, hails from a very large, national law firm. His experience and confidence made him a formidable opponent.

The director of the Travelers’ lab attended court each day to listen to his employees’ testimony and to observe our cross-examination style – all in an apparent effort to be fully prepared to address any issues in need of clarification. The court permitted him to provide expert testimony that the evidence offered by Travelers was not fabricated. In so doing, he gave an opinion about the evidence that essentially proved our case. Contrary to the testimony of the lab’s chemist, who had testified about the kerosene samples the previous day, the lab director testified that the sample of kerosene allegedly taken from the burnt and fire-damaged kerosene container was exposed to less heat and evaporation than the sample of kerosene allegedly taken from a pristine, undamaged kerosene heater. This supported our theory of the case that the kerosene container was knocked over, either by the blasts of water sprayed into the room by the firefighters or by the collapse of a cardboard box the container was sitting on before the fire – and not by Travelers’ assertion that Andrew doused the room in kerosene.

Victory for Andrew

During closing arguments, I asked the jury to put a stop to the games Travelers’ investigators were playing and to send a message to Travelers that they do not condone the culture displayed by Travelers during the trial. I described all the witnesses called by Travelers as being part of “Team Travelers” – each one looking for the MVP award. The jury awarded all of the damages Andrew identified for his personal property loss, as well as the damage his house sustained not previously paid to his wife.

But there remained the issue of fair compensation for that filthy word – arson. I argued that no one in his right mind would go through what Andrew went through – carrying the label of an arsonist for five years – for less than a million dollars. The judge instructed the jurors that they alone possessed the power to right this wrong. This jury was Andrew’s only hope to remove that filthy label for good.

The jury responded by awarding Andrew a million dollars for his emotional distress. The jurors clearly understood the stress one would endure from being labeled an arsonist. They didn’t need medical bills or reports for emotional distress, nor did they need proof that Andrew treated with a health care provider for his emotional distress. We did not have past or projected future economic damages. There was no permanency rating and no life care planners.

There was Andrew, telling the jury what it felt like to be wrongly labeled an arsonist and describing the horrible, helpless feeling he experienced in the years after Travelers refused to listen to him.

“You made it so easy for us to find for you.”

This trial presented me with a few personal challenges. The area of law was new to me. The subject matter of the experts was foreign. I received a crash course in electrical engineering from Lenny and Andrew. I studied and gained an understanding of the concept of “weathering”, which refers to how certain kerosene components are much more volatile than others, causing them to evaporate more rapidly than other components when exposed to heat. My anxiety level spiked with the knowledge that my cross-examination of the electrical engineer required much more than simply standing outside a cage, poking at him – I had to crawl right into the cage with him and attack his findings and the grounds for his opinions. The fear of letting Lenny and Andrew down after all their hard work – and after learning that Travelers was simply wrong – wore on me.

It was especially rewarding to observe the thrill of victory, the exoneration of a man falsely labeled, and the jubilation on Andrew’s face when the verdict was read totaling $1,504,346.10. Interest and court costs will push this total much closer to $2,000,000.00. I was thrilled for Lenny that the jury understood his hard work, validating his resolve to vindicate his client. When I asked a juror to describe what convinced her to rule in our favor, she responded simply, “You made it so easy for us to find for you.”

As I reflect on the jury’s verdict, I am relieved that, of all the institutions corporate America has conquered, the jury system is not one of them. It remains a group of ordinary people listening to an ordinary person’s story presented by ordinary lawyers – all in an effort to right a wrong.