Insurance Contract—Insurer claims fire in vacant house was arson

Sanhareeb Marooki v Allstate Insurance Co. Co. 06L-10327

  • Verdict: Not Guilty
  • Special Interrogatories: Was the fire intentionally set and was the property unoccupied for more than 90 consecutive days prior to Dec. 26, 2005? "Yes." Was the fire intentionally set and was the property vacant for more than 90 consecutive days prior to Dec. 26, 2005? "Yes."
  • Judge: James Michael Varga (IL Cook-Law)
  • Pltf Atty: Neal S. Gainsberg of Staver & Gainsberg
  • Demand: $169,366
  • Asked: $169,366
  • Deft Atty: Mark B. Ruda of Condon & Cook
  • Offer: none
  • Pltf Experts: Michael Agosti, Skokie Fire Department, 7424 Niles Center Rd., Skokie, IL (847-982-5300) (Fire Cause/Origin) and Mitchell Kushner, Illinois State Fire Marshall's Office, Arson Investigation Division, 1035 Stevenson Dr., Springfield, IL (217-782-9116) (Fire Cause/Origin)
  • Deft Expert: Jason Mardirosian, Fire Scene Investigations Inc., 909 E. 31st St., Unit B, LaGrange Park, IL (708-588-1970) (Fire Cause/Origin)

Dec. 26, 2005, fire caused $169,366.00 worth of damage to a house owned by Plaintiff at 8048 N. Crawford in Skokie. Plaintiff was insured with Allstate under a landlord's policy and submitted a claim for the fire loss, but Allstate denied the claim based upon an exclusion to coverage in the policy which stated that there would be no coverage for a fire loss resulting from vandalism if the dwelling had been vacant or unoccupied for more than 90 consecutive days immediately prior to the vandalism. Plaintiff sued for breach of contract, contending the fire was not an act of vandalism, it was not intentionally set, and the property was neither unoccupied nor vacant for 90 consecutive days before the fire. Another judge entered summary judgment in Allstate's favor on Plaintiff's bad faith claim.

Skokie Fire Investigator Mike Agosti concluded the cause of the fire was undetermined and recommended hiring an electrical engineer to further investigate the possibility that a fault in the electrical system may have been the cause of the fire. State Fire Marshall Kushner testified that his dog, who is trained to smell if an accelerant was used to start a fire, did not detect an accelerant. Plaintiff argued that because an accelerant was not found, the fire could not have been intentionally set. Plaintiff also denied the home was vacant or unoccupied because there were numerous pieces of furniture and other personal items in the house and garage, Plaintiff regularly checked on the property, he entered it on a regular basis to watch television and visit with friends there, his last visit was in Nov. 2005, and his brother had been there three days before the fire.

Defendant's expert opined the fire was intentionally set, there were two separate points of origin of the fire located in rooms on opposite corners of the house, no electrical items were plugged into outlets in those two rooms thereby excluding any electrical cause for the fire, the outlets in both rooms were burned from the outside in and not the inside out, and 80% of the intentionally set fires he had investigated did not involve the use of accelerants. The defense asserted the property was vacant and unoccupied because the last tenant (Plaintiff's brother) had moved out in July 2004; Plaintiff had tried but was unsuccessful in renting the property again; there had been no water usage at the property since Nov. 2004; the gas service was shut off in March 2005; electrical usage bills were only $7 to $8 per month during the last four months of 2005; the home was vacant because there were no personal items present such as beds, dishes, clothing or food; and all of the remaining furniture and the old TV belonged to the brother who had abandoned the property.

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