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Watson v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co.





Appeal from the Circuit Court of Kankakee County; the Hon. Patrick M. Burns, Judge, presiding.


Rehearing denied April 13, 1984.

Plaintiffs, William Watson and his former wife, Juanita McDermott, brought suit against defendant, State Farm Fire and Casualty Company, seeking to recover under a policy of insurance for fire damage to their residence and its contents. The circuit court of Kankakee County directed a verdict, entering judgment against the defendant and in favor of both plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs' residence and personal property were insured by the defendant providing coverage for real estate in the amount of $42,600, personal property in the amount of $21,300 and Watson's living expenses in the amount of $2,100. On December 9, 1977, at approximately 1:53 a.m., a fire occurred destroying the residence and its contents. At that time, the plaintiffs had recently separated and McDermott was no longer living at the marital residence. On the evening of the fire, there were heavy snows and high winds. Some streets were blocked with snow and driving was hazardous.

The defendant received notice of the fire the day it occurred and later took several statements from the plaintiffs. In Watson's initial statement, he indicated that on the day before the fire, he had consulted with his attorney for the first time regarding his wife's recently filed divorce suit. He then went to a bar and to K-Mart before returning home in the early evening. He later left his home again to go Christmas shopping and to have dinner. The Watson children were spending the evening at a friend's home.

Watson stated that he returned home at approximately 11 p.m., and after cleaning the basement and washing some clothes, he went to bed. Thereafter, shortly before 2 a.m. the next morning, a patrolman with the Kankakee County sheriff's police observed flames in the Watson residence and Watson exiting the premises through a window. In a later statement Watson indicated that he had previously attempted to sell his house and at the time he had considered moving to Florida to start his own business.

Approximately a year and one-half after the fire occurred, it was discovered that on the evening of the fire Watson was accompanied by a woman to a bar and later returned with her to his residence. While she was present in Watson's house she smelled nothing unusual. Watson discussed his impending divorce with her and appeared to be depressed. She stayed with Watson until 10 p.m., at which time Watson drove her home.

John Maurus, a fire investigator, inspected the fire site after the fire had occurred. He observed low-altitude flame damage in the basement and heavy charring underneath a basement staircase having no ascertainable natural cause. Watson stated that to his knowledge there was no paint, thinner or gasoline stored beneath the stairs prior to the fire. Maurus also observed unconnected low burning in the southeast and north areas of the basement representing two separate heat sources.

In his examination of causative agents, Maurus eliminated the furnace, electrical wiring, the electrical distribution box, the hot water heater, the cooking range, the air conditioner and several television sets. He found no signs of electrical fault or short circuiting in the appliances, and Watson had had no prior problems with them.

Maurus removed eight samples from the fire site and transported them to a laboratory for analysis by an analytical chemist. The samples were tested on a chromatograph in January of 1978. A chromatograph is a chart with peaks and valleys indicating the chemical composition of a substance. The chromatographs for the fire samples were compared to various known standards and five of the eight samples were found to be similar to gasoline and, to a lesser extent, paint thinner.

During the course of the investigation, no information was discovered to indicate that Juanita McDermott was in any way connected with the fire. McDermott completed a proof of loss form and a loss of contents form. Thereafter, the defendant requested additional information on several occasions concerning her insurable interest. In the meantime, the defendant paid the mortgage balance on the real property and took a "pro tanto" assignment from the mortgagee for the portion paid to the benefit of Watson.

On May 16, 1978, the defendant denied Watson's claim based on its suspicion of arson. The defendant did not deny McDermott's claim.

Watson filed suit against the defendant on October 26, 1978, and McDermott filed her suit on November 27, 1978, claiming an undivided one-half interest in all of the property destroyed. The defendant admitted liability as to McDermott but denied she had established her insurable interest. One year later, the defendant tendered the sum of $10,909.53 to the court for the benefit of McDermott's interest in the personal property.

The two causes of action were consolidated, and at trial the court directed a verdict and entered judgment thereon against the defendant and in favor of both plaintiffs. At a separate hearing following the trial, the court granted the plaintiffs' request for attorney fees, costs and penalties under section ...

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