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Articles Tagged with Arson


puzzles-1439091-2-m.jpgAs we just talked about in our last article, in order for an insurance company to deny a first-party property claim in New York because of arson, and make that denial stand up in court, it has to prove that the insured intentionally caused the fire, and it has to do so by clear and convincing evidence. That is not always an easy burden of proof to meet. There reportedly is an exciting new tool being developed that might make proving arson, i.e., that a fire was intentionally set, easier and help arson investigators become even more effective in determining who caused the fire.

Researchers from the University of Alberta and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, working in tandem, have developed a new computer program that can pinpoint the presence of gasoline in debris taken from a fire scene. What makes this so important is that gasoline, according to the researchers, is the most common accelerant found in arson fires; evidently preferred by arsonists everywhere. By making it easier to detect, and confirm, the presence of gasoline, you stand a good chance of making arson easier to prove and less profitable to attempt.

What makes the new tool so helpful, is that it often is difficult to confirm the presence of an accelerant in debris taken from a fire scene. No two houses, buildings, or fire scenes, are exactly alike; they contain different mixes of materials. Different materials leave behind different chemical compounds when burned, and these can mask the presence of an accelerant such as gasoline. The researchers, in effect, developed a computer filter that can by-pass the background noise to pinpoint the tell-tale signs of gasoline. They developed their tool by examining data from 232 samples taken from fires across Canada; by using real-life debris rather than merely relying on simulations, the researchers say their tool is dependably accurate.

Currently, determining whether there are traces of an accelerant left behind at a fire scene is time-consuming work. According to the researchers, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have two separate forensic scientists examine each sample to see if their findings agree; this can take several hours for each sample, and there normally are three to four samples per fire. The newly developed computer program shrinks this time substantially. The first scientist still will have to analyze the debris herself, but will be able to confirm her findings in seconds, rather than hours, by using the computer program. A second forensic scientist will not have to analyze the debris unless the computer program’s findings disagree with those of the first scientist.
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candle-light-burning-1437374-m.jpgIt takes a lot to deny a first-party property claim in New York because of arson. It is not much easier to make that denial hold up in court. As we’ve previously mentioned, when an insured seeks to recover for fire damage under his own policy of insurance, i.e., when he makes a first-party property claim, the burden of proof is on the insurer to establish the affirmative defense of arson, and it has to do so by clear and convincing evidence. Perhaps the best way to understand what that abstract legal rule means, though, is to see how it is applied to actual, real-life claims. There is a case, from not that long ago, Maier v. Allstate Ins. Co., 41 A.D.3d 1098, 838 N.Y.S.2d 715 (3rd Dept. 2007), that does a good job of showing just what type of evidence you need in order to establish an arson defense in a civil case.

The Plaintiff in Maier v Allstate, supra, owned a home in the Town of Sand Lake in Rensselaer County, in upstate New York. For a long time he lived half of the year in Sand Lake and the other half of the year he rented a home in Florida. The same day he was going to move to Florida permanently, a fire completely destroyed his Sand Lake house. The Insured tried to recover for the property damage under his homeowner’s policy of insurance with Allstate; he submitted a sworn statement in proof of loss, making claim to recover a total of $240,000.00 for damage to the house, personal property, and debris removal. The insurance carrier paid off the $92,000.00 remaining on his mortgage, pursuant to the standard mortgagee clause in the policy, but denied the Insured’s claim. When the Insured sued to recover under his policy, the insurance carrier asserted arson as an affirmative defense. After a bench trial, the carrier won and the complaint was dismissed. Not liking the verdict, the Insured appealed. The Appellate Division, Third Department, upheld the verdict. In other words, the carrier met its burden of establishing, by clear and convincing evidence, that the Insured intentionally caused the fire. The evidence the insurance company used, and the trial and appellate court relied on, shows how arson sometimes can be established through even conflicting, circumstantial evidence.

Arson means that the fire was intentionally set. One thing you normally look for to establish arson is the presence of an accelerant, which is a combustible material used to help start, or spread, the fire; think of a flammable liquid such as gasoline. If you find evidence that an accelerant was used, chances are the fire did not start accidentally. Here, there was conflicting evidence about whether or not an accelerant was used:

  • The County’s fire investigator used a specially trained dog to determine that traces of accelerant were found near the entrance to a bedroom that had a burnt-out mattress. The Insured argued the dog’s actions did not clearly confirm the presence of an accelerant; the court disagreed.
  • The insurance company’s origin and cause investigator, based on his own inspection, determined that the fire began in the same location, on the burnt-out mattress. Presumably he determined this from the burn patterns on the mattress.
  • The lab analysis of the mattress, however, found no traces of an accelerant.

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