* The first few days after the fire:
Everything seemed to be progressing as it should after a fire. The adjuster, Russell Hamby, was very cordial and helpful. He recommended a contractor who would give an estimate and clean everything that was salvageable. There was even a dry cleaning company that took all our clothes and linens to be cleaned. They told us to separate salvageable items and they would put a portable storage unit at the house. We were very thankful that lots of friends came and helped get things out and cleaned up our personal items. Several people got our picture albums that appeared to be burnt beyond repair, removed the pictures, cut off the black edges, and put them in new albums. We were amazed at how many of the actual pictures were saved from those charred albums. There was a fire inspector who came out the next day, I can’t remember his name, but he said it seemed like wiring in the hallway or possibly the battery charger plugged into the outlet in the hall that could have started the fire.
The day after the fire on July 21st, we went to Tayler’s stepfather’s funeral which was extremely sad, and was compiled with the stress and uncertainty of the whole situation. Where was our family going to live? What were they going to eat? What were they going to wear? What will the kids need for tomorrow? The stress of figuring out how to tell the children our kittens did not make it was also intense. My mind was full and my wife seemed to be overwhelmed and confused.
At the hotel, Becki and I discussed what to say, and what not to say about the fire. After talking to a few other close friends and family, we decided to say as little as possible because we were afraid that the insurance company would deny our claim based on negligence, carelessness or something like that. The less said the better, so we thought.
* The meeting at Farm Bureau with Mr. Hamby:
It was Friday, July 23rd, three days after the fire, I drove to Manchester to meet with Russell Hamby. He needed me to give him a recorded statement, and I tried to say as little as possible, however, this really wasn’t sitting well with me.
On Tuesday, July 27th, I told Becki that I thought I needed to tell Russell Hamby about the sauna, and that evening I called him. He asked me why I hadn’t told him that on Friday, and so I told him that I was afraid they would not pay the claim and I didn’t know where my family would live. When he asked why I decided to tell him, I said because I try to be an honest person and if they didn’t pay because of this, we would just declare bankruptcy and move on.
* Farm Bureau’s Fire Investigation:
On Thursday, July 29th, I met Lee Brooks, the Farm Bureau Investigator and Phillip Gentry, a private Fire Cause and Origin Investigator. They were very perplexed as to why there was no police tape and why everyone was going in and out of the house. I told him no one told me that we couldn’t go in and work. He told me to make sure nothing else was removed and no one should be going in. He asked me about how the fire started and why I had not told that to Mr. Hamby. I explained about the clothes on the sauna coals and how I was feeling miserable. He stated that they do pay for stupidity, but not for arson. Somehow this made me feel better for a while. We then went into the house and I showed him the sauna, the piles of burnt clothes, and even the broken clothes rod in the sauna room. Then they started asking me about “accelerants” and “flammable liquid” in the hallway. I told him I didn’t think there was anything flammable there. The only thing I could remember was some oil lamps that Becki uses for family worship with the kids. I had to explain that on Sabbath evenings we sometimes turn off all the lights and use the oil lamps for family worship to make it special. I couldn’t remember how many lamps or if we had extra oil on the high shelf in the hallway. I sent a text message to Becki to ask her and she replied two or three oil lamps and two to three whole bottles of oil. This twist of events with the lamp oil left us in shock and bewildered. We never imagined this with the oil lamps that we place high on a shelf in the hallway away from the kids.
Farm Bureau became less cooperative, and Mr. Hamby would continually refer things to Mr. Brooks who seemed to never return my calls. As the “investigation” stretched on, I kept thinking that this was all happening because I had not told them upfront about the clothes in the sauna. In the end though, I felt that they would have to pay the claim because they pay for accidents and “for stupidity” and because I had not “intentionally set fire” to the house. It should also be noted that had we failed to comply with any request made from Farm Bureau, they would have denied the claim based on our “failure to cooperate” with their investigation.
*1st Examination Under Oath (EUO), Monday, October 4th, 2010:
This was the most humiliating experience that we think we have ever endured. It started with our general purpose attorney thinking this was no big deal and doing very little to prep us for the EUO. When we walked in the room we noticed the court reporter taking notes and there was a video camera set up pointing at us so the entire event could be video taped. Their attorney, Arthur McClellan, was very difficult to work with. He seemed like the most arrogant and condescending person we had ever met.
First, he grilled Becki from 10 am until 12:30 pm when we broke for lunch. Then he grilled me from 1:30 pm to 3:30 pm. He asked me about drinking when I was in my early 20’s, insurance claims from the early 1990’s, tried to make Becki out to be a submissive wife and me to be demanding and overbearing, and kept saying I changed my story numerous times. “Why did you lie” was a continuing theme that he came back to over and over. One thing that hit us out of the blue was all the questions about our student loans. He also kept asking Becki over and over about what we did with the lamps for worship as if it was some kind of cult practice. Becki tried to explain that it was just a way to make Sabbath special for the kids. He grilled me over what I had done to prevent further damage. I tried to explain that Mr. Brooks, who was present during the EUO, told me not to touch anything, so there was water leaking in the roof possible causing further damage and the furniture that we were told to put outside for the contractor to pick was still there getting rained on ruined. Mr. Hamby had told me to record on our Proof of Loss statement any addition items that were ruined, and so that is what I did.
Towards the end of the EUO their attorney showed me a diagram showing “pour patterns” from the hallway that their fire investigator claims were present. Then he flat out asked me if I poured the lamp oil down the hall and lit it up. Obviously, I told him “No!” He asked me if I would allow the state bomb and arson inspector to come out and investigate, and I agreed as long as I could be present there.
Their attorney explained to us that we would be getting a copy of the EUO with an Errata sheet which we could use to make any clarification or changes to the record. Later our “wonderful” attorney said that the arson stuff was just hypothetical and that they ask everyone that. I told him that I believed they were very serious. He later found out that yes indeed, arson was their theory and they were trying to prove I poured lamp oil and lit the house on fire.
When it was over, we were exhausted, depressed, and really felt like we had been literally beat up and down. On top of that, the financial burden was wearing down on us, and we had to get two loans for attorneys to continue the fight. We knew that if it went on much longer we would be completely out of financial resources to continue the legal process. A family member also gave us a loan for the first retainer and as you will read later our Woodbury church and Murfreesboro church blessed us with a gift for legal fees also. Even with this though, at many times during this whole process we were worried we would not be able to continue to pay attorney fees to fight for our case.
* Our Rebuttal:
Farm Bureau asked for all of our student loan records to prove they were in deferment or forbearance, for more tax records, and for Errata sheets to correct anything that we felt needed to be corrected.
Our attorney advised us to get our own Fire Cause and Origin investigator and to hire an attorney that specializes in insurance law. We gladly took his advice, so we had a private house fire investigator come out to the house and he advised us to retrieve our phone records and bank records to show where we were during the fire. After we got the transcript of the EUO back, we found a lot of things that we needed to change because we now had our phone and bank records and knew exactly where we were and at what time. We also were able to show the exact time we were at Walmart and made a purchase before going to Portland. We had not even thought about these things prior to the EUO. We answered to the best of our knowledge then, but there were so many things that we just did not know or remember at the time. One major thing that we needed to address was a water damage claim that we were paid for from our previous insurance company, Allstate. We totally forgot about it when we applied for our insurance with Farm Bureau. At the time this happened, I was going through a difficult transition at work and soon after Becki deployed to Iraq. The whole event had disappeared from our remembrance until I requested a Letter of Experience from Allstate. With much research online about EOU’s we found that if anything needed changes, to be sure everything was correct.
*The Clothes and Furniture Issue:
The dry cleaning company came out on Thursday after the fire and then came back on Tuesday with our rush order of some of the clothes that we needed right away. The rest were supposed to be done in three weeks. Towards the end of August, we started to wonder if they were done. We called Farm Bureau and got no response about it. Finally I got a hold of someone at the dry cleaning company and was stunned when I was told that Farm Bureau told them this could be “a false claim.” They had not even started work on the bulk of our order which included our clothes, bed linens, blankets, towels, shoes and Hannah’s stuffed animals. Farm Bureau did not even have the courtesy to inform us that they told the dry cleaning service to hold up on our order. It was all in piles in their warehouse in Columbia, TN. After the EUO, I ended up making two trips, packing every square in of the van topic, upping up our stuff. Then we had to wash and service them all. We were without most of our clothes, our linens, shoes and other miscellaneous items for over ten weeks. Many people gave us clothes, we purchased much needed items, or we went without during this time.
A few days after the EUO, I cleaned out a bedroom in the house and moved all the furniture that was outside and still salvageable into that bedroom. I had no idea what to do about the roof, so I called Apex, the contractor company. They said they would check with Russell Hamby and see if he would approve them coving the holes with tarps. A few days latter, they came out and put the tarps on. The storage container never came. We did rent a storage unit on our own, then Farm Bureau reimbursed us for it and continued to pay for it through February.
* Mr. Dauberman’s Fire Investigation:
Apparently, our fire was supposed to be investigated by the TBI, immediately after the occurrence. Mr. Larry Dubermen, investigator for the Bomb and Arson Section at the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, interviewed me at work, and then came out to our house. He stated that the investigation of our fire had “fell through the cracks.” A few days later on Friday, October 29th, he and another agent came to the house, and his partner stayed outside and talked to me while he did the investigation inside in the house for an hour or so. When he finished, he indicated that since the fire was over 90 days old, he was unable to take any samples. He didn’t contact us again after that.
*Possible Causes for the fire:
1-Accourding to Farm Bureau, I set the fire by pouring lamp oil all over the hallway with motive of using insurance money to pay off my student loans. Well, lets see, 1) I would have to set the fire with my kids in the van and leave without my 11 year old son in the front seat noticing anything; 2) I would have to be a pretty morbid person to let two kittens, loved by the family, perish in the smoke; 3) I would have been so smart to figure out how to do this, but too stupid to know that the insurance company was going to pay the mortgage off on the house and/or over-see rebuilding instead of writing me a big fat check that I could pay off those student loans. 4) I was not home, even my neighbor came home and did not see smoke or see me at home. My phone records and ATM transactions prove where I was at the exact times and places.
2- It is theoretically possible that a person passing by could have run into the house, saw the lamp oil and poured it all over, then left. I can’t recall anyone who dislikes me so much to do this. A random person would have had to get in and out before anyone on our relatively busy street driving by or even our neighbor saw them.
3- It is our belief that the clothes in the bathroom smoldered back up and spread to the hallway. I vaguely recall when we left that the front door was open, but because we were so late, I decided to leave it open. The lady who called 911 said she saw smoke coming out that door and closed it. The front door also had evidence of smoke and soot on it. The smoke patterns in the house seemed to indicate that the air source was from the front door. This drew the fire down the hall to the front instead of up the hall to the back where the doors were all closed preventing any source of air. When the fire got to the oil lamps and extra oil bottles, they melted and spread everywhere which made it extremely hot in the hallway causing all the appliances, light bulbs, and anything else that was plastic in that part of the hall to melt. There is a big round burnt pattern in the linoleum floor beside the shelf. Broken oil lamp pieces were clearly on top of shelf and floor. It would appear that there was an oil fire ball that fell onto the floor. It even shattered the window panes in the outside door there.
It was almost two months before we heard from the Farm Bureau attorney again. We received a letter stating they wanted a second EUO because of all the changes we made to the first one. We had told the truth to the best of our knowledge the first time, and then corrected everything we felt was inaccurate based on the pages and pages of phone records, bank statements, police and fire reports, and work documents. We just were devastated and felt totally defeated. We would have to go through that whole awful, humiliating, exhausting experience again! We reluctantly set the date for just before Christmas on Friday, December 17th, 2010. With all the things our family has experienced (both of our deployments to war, Perry’s multiple surgeries, Hannah’s surgery at 3 months old etc…) This was by far the most challenging with long, intense roller coaster rides of emotions. It was prayer, scripture, friends, family, church, and Sabbath school that encouraged us with support and peace of mind during these deeply challenging days.
Our new attorney, Brandon McWherter, not only specializes in insurance, but also fighting Farm Bureau. He has represented hundreds of clients who were also denied by Farm Bureau. We felt much better going into this 2nd EUO because we had an attorney that knew what he was doing and we knew what to expect from Mr. McClellan. This attorney, unlike our previous one, met with us the day before this second EOU to prepare us. This was very helpful to us and we really appreciated this.
Farm Bureau’s attorney, Mr. McClellan, drilled us on why we made so many changes to our first EUO on the errata sheet. We both answered that after the first EOU we obtained our phone records and our bank statements so we could specifically give times and clarify anything needed. We also made grammatical corrections. The EOU is very confusing because everywhere you read on-line it says you must clarify EVERY mistake or anything that needs correcting on the errata sheet. Mr. McClellan kept repeatedly asking why I “lied” about the fire and the previous insurance claims. He asked what I had done wrong, and I stated “not telling Mr. Hamby about the clothes in the sauna.” Another line of questioning was on the difference between drugs and alcohol. His insinuation was that alcohol is a drug, therefore when I put on our application that I had not done drugs, I had lied.
It became obvious at one point that Farm Bureau was not really interested in finding out what happened and instead was only concerned with tripping us up, catching us in a lie, or making us so mad that we would just walk out, in which case they would automatically deny the claim. Mr. McClellan was questioning me over and over why I “lied” on one of the questions in the first EUO regarding how many claims we filed prior to this claim. I had stated that we had only one claim, and I reaffirmed that answer. Mr. McClellan began to get testy, stating that in fact I had three auto claims, two on this property and one on a previous property therefore I lied when I told him I only had one. I tried to refer back to the original question and the inference that he was asking about homeowners insurance with Farm Bureau. He kept drilling me that I lied, and I kept firing back with it was homeowners insurance in question, not auto insurance. I was getting quite upset and I believe he was deliberately pushing me as hard as he could. Mr. McWherter finally spoke up and referred to the rest of Mr. McClellan’s original question stating that it specifically was asking about property claims for “water damage, not auto.” Mr. McClellan looked at him and practically yelled, “Mr. McWherter, I would appreciate your being silent!” To that our attorney politely stated that “I just want to make sure the record is clear, Mr. McClellan.” To that Mr. McClellan fired back, “You know your role, as well as I do, and it’s not to be talking during the course of this examination.” I do know that,” Mr. McWherter replied politely, “but I assumed Farm Bureau would like the truth.” With that Mr. McClellan moved on from there.
Afterwards, our attorney said that he didn’t think they got anything new, and we did not hurt our case.
* The Long Wait:
The wait was horrible, and the cold winter, brown water, and cramped little house only compounded it. Farm Bureau paid the rent for January and February. Towards the end of February we made a request for a lap top. Instead of replying directly to that question, they told our attorney to expect a decision on our claim “by the end of next week.” The last week of February, I called Farm Bureau about the rent as I had done previously, and was told that I needed to refer all questions to my attorney. I was sure they were going to deny our claim, so I set out to make plan B – find a good, large, comfortable house, and the Lord provided.
Because I was extremely distraught that evening, and without my wife’s approval (she was upset when she heard about it), I posted the following status on Facebook:
“We got the dreaded letter that said they were denying the claim because 1) I intentionally set the fire, 2) we lied during the EUOs, and 3) we lied on our original application.”
Our attorney said for all those reasons, it would be extremely hard to sue them. We would have to fight each issue one by one and instead advised attempting to give Farm Bureau a settlement offer. I think this was the safe bet for our attorney. After the 2nd EUO, he had been charging us on contingency. I’m sure he would have wanted an astronomical retainer if we were to attempt to sue Farm Bureau for non-payment or what is called a “bad faith claim.”
In the mean time, I did call Mr. Dauberman, the state inspector, who informed me that the case was closed and there would be no further investigation or any criminal charges filed against me. I wasn’t sure if that made me feel good or not. We also found out that there is a different principle for convictions in a criminal court and there was definitely not enough objective evidence to charge me with arson. However, insurance companies only have to show reasonable belief of 50% plus one to deny claims. If they think there is a more likely chance that the fire was intentionally set, than if it was just and accident, they will deny the claim. The homeowner then must either make a settlement offer or sue then the insurance company for bad faith claim in order to clear him/herself of wrong doing.
After a first rejection, they accepted a settlement offer of 1) $90,000 to pay off their obligation to the mortgage company, 2) give us a clear title, and 3) pay $17,500 to me and Mr. McWherter, of which our attorney received $15,500 and he we would get $2,000 back. Not as good as we had originally hoped for, but it sure beats nothing at all.
The day we got our check I posted the following status on Facebook:
“I’ve been EXONERATED!!! Yes, it is a check for $90,772.79. The mortgage company will get almost all of it, but we will have a clear title on our property. Thanks for all your prayers!”
While we are still waiting for the title release, on April 14, 2011, our home mortgage through Wells Fargo was PAID IN FULL!
Jesus once said “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) We have had our share of trouble, but we have taken heart and through Christ have overcome.