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Fire Investigations

A recent Indianapolis Monthly Magazine article by Megan Fernandez tells the story of Kristine Bunch, a Greensburg mother who spent sixteen years in the Indiana Women’s Prison for a crime she did not commit.

In 1996 a Decatur County Jury convicted Kristine of murder and arson for a fire that destroyed Kristine’s home and killed her three-year-old son, Tony.

In 2012, after a long and hard-fought legal battle, Kristine’s conviction was overturned, and she was set free.  Kristine has always maintained her innocence, and it was ultimately determined that the science used by fire investigators to convict her was flawed.  This same flawed science is still being used by insurance companies to deny claims that are made by their insureds after a fire.

In the Bunch case, fire investigators wrongfully concluded that the fire was started and spread with the use of accelerants.  An accelerant can be any flammable liquid spread around and then set on fire.  An ATF report entered by the prosecution of Bunch suggested “heavy petroleum distillate,” the most common of which is kerosene.  However, as Bunch’s legal team would later discover, years after her conviction, the ATF report was flawed.  The investigator made assumptions about certain gas chromatography tests that were taken using carpet and other samples from Bunch’s home, specifically that they contained evidence of accelerant.  Kristine’s conviction came four years after the National Fire Protection Agency promulgated its manual known as NFPA 921; yet the State Fire Marshall who testified against Kristine conceded he had never even read it.

One of the many lessons we can take from the Bunch case is that fire investigations can be very complex.  After any fire, if there is insurance involved, the insurance company is going to hire a fire investigator to attempt to determine the cause and origin of that fire.  In the event the insurance company suspects that the fire was intentionally set, their next step will be to engage an attorney to subject their policyholder to an Examination Under Oath, or (“EUO”).  An EUO is basically a deposition that everyone agrees to submit to when they buy an insurance policy.  If you don’t submit to the EUO, the insurance company will deny your claim.  The job of the insurance company lawyers is to determine if there was a motive to intentionally set a fire.  They are going to ask for your tax returns, credit card and bank statements, and many other personal documents.  If you refuse to cooperate, they will deny your claim.  This is not a process that anyone should submit to without an experienced lawyer in their corner.

Featured image is a copy of an altered ATF lab report analyzing samples from the fire scene became one of the keys to Kristine’s exoneration. (Photo courtesy Kristine Bunch)

If you or someone you know has suffered the agony of losing a loved one or property to a fire, and the insurance company is refusing to pay the claim, you need to hire an experienced fire attorney immediately.  An insurance company that refused to pay for damages caused by a fire, without reasonable cause, can be subject to punitive damages.  If you have questions about the way your insurance company is handling your fire claim, please contact us for a free consultation.