C. Andrew Riley is a former Wall Street executive who purchased an ornate Victorian home in the Windham County town of Pomfret after his honeymoon 31 years ago.
One day in February 2009, a fire broke out in the room where Riley stored family photos and mementos from his career. In addition, his wife had just received a $30,000 bonus check from her employer. That, too, was reduce to ash. In fact, much of the home’s interior sustained extensive damage.
Pomfret’s fire marshal ruled the fire accidental. But Riley’s insurance company accused him of arson and would not cover any of his losses.
Riley sued the insurer, Travelers Home and Marine Insurance Co., and after a month-long trial a Hartford jury recently ruled for Riley. He was awarded $1.5 million, an amount his lawyers expect to rise to $2 million after interest and court costs are added in.
“That was just one of the more rewarding experiences of my life, to see his good name restored,” said one of Riley’s lawyers, Leonard “Lenny” Isaac, of West Hartford. “I don’t think a jury could be clearer about who they believed and who they did not.”
For three decades, Riley resided in the vintage 1880 Victorian with his wife. They raised two children who are now grown and serving in the military.
As Riley tells it, on Feb. 26, 2009, he was home alone doing research. He had to work out of his home due to heart problems that has led to several heart attacks. He received a phone call from his security company, ADT, which detected smoke on the second floor. When Riley went upstairs to check, he saw a room engulfed in flames. He closed the door to the room and fled the house. Firefighters soon arrived but not in time to prevent extensive damage. Isaac said had Riley not closed the door of the room where the fire originated, the entire home would have been destroyed.
Pomfret’s fire marshal investigated with a camera, and the video was later played to the jury. He determined that the fire was accidental, probably caused by faulty wiring. Specifically, mice were the likely culprits. “Rodents are known to damage wires in rural areas,” said Isaac.
According to Riley’s other lawyer, Jim Nugent of Nugent & Bryant in New Haven, Riley contacted Travelers about the fire. The insurer’s investigators, who are based in Windsor, left Pomfret with an entirely different theory as to the fire’s cause. “They claimed the plaintiff poured kerosene in the room and then ignited it,” said Nugent.
Nugent said the insurer had no motive for why Riley would set the fire. Further, Riley’s lawyers said, Travelers’ fire investigator tried to get Pomfret’s fire marshal to change his story. The marshal refused.
Travelers refused to pay Riley for his losses. Nugent said the house was salvageable but all of the family’s possessions were either burned or smoke damaged. Riley made repairs and replaced belongings from his own savings, at a total cost of about $880,000.
He then filed a lawsuit in Hartford Superior Court against Travelers, alleging breach of contract and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
“Nothing Travelers was arguing really made any sense when you look at the big picture,” said Isaac. “One of the hallmark signs of an arson fire is that it takes place where there are no items of value. This was exactly the opposite.”
Isaac said his client was an investment strategist on Wall Street for many years who often provided commentary for television and print media about investments and the economy. He said many mementos, including articles about and photos of his public appearances, were kept in the room where the fire started and were lost.
Isaac said that Riley’s wife, Barbara, was allowed to make an insurance claim for some losses because the policy was written to exclude only the person responsible for an intentional act. After a long wait, Isaac said Riley’s wife received a check for $600,000 to cover some personal belongings as well as for temporary housing, as the home needed extensive repairs before being habitable again. “If Andrew’s name was on it, [Travelers] wouldn’t pay a dime,” said Isaac. “It took Travelers years to pay Mrs. Riley what was due to her.”
Isaac said the $600,000 payment came with a catch: Travelers had the right to sue the wrongdoer to recover the cost. He said defense attorneys did not acknowledge this to the jury, but it was possible they were planning to sue Andrew Riley to recover the $600,000.
Isaac said the arson accusation hung like a “cloud” over his client. He said Riley was worried about being charged criminally because of the allegation.
Travelers was represented by Daniel Sullivan, who works out of Robinson & Cole’s Rhode Island office. Sullivan referred comment on the case to Travelers’ media relations department.
“Travelers is currently evaluating its post-trial and appellate options,” said spokesman Daryl Richard, who declined to comment further.
Jury selection began May 20 and evidence presentation started before Superior Court Judge David Sheridan on June 3. On June 23, the jury deliberated for four hours and then came back with a verdict of $1,504,346.
Nugent said that with interest and court costs, he expects the verdict to end up just under $2 million.
“I have a funny suspicion my client was not the first mistreated and mislabeled” by an insurance company, said Nugent, who handled the trial. “But fortunately, he had the wherewithal financially as well as the stubbornness and determination to bring Travelers to a jury.”
Isaac concurred with his cocounsel. “You say, ‘My God, this might be going on a lot more often than we know.’ I didn’t think they decided to just go after Andrew Riley one day.”
Isaac tracked down a similar case in Connecticut that made its way to the state Supreme Court in 2003 called Carrol v. Allstate Insurance. In that case, a fire destroyed a significant portion of a Norwalk home in 1997. Investigators from Allstate Insurance Co. determined the blaze was intentionally set and refused to pay the claim. The case eventually went to trial and the homeowner was awarded $560,000.
Ultimately, in a ruling written by then-Justice Christine Vertefeuille, the court largely upheld the jury’s verdict, except for $60,000 in punitive damages. Isaac said the decision has been the precedent for plaintiffs being able to add an emotional distress claim to a nontort breach of contract case.
Isaac, who specializes in helping policy holders collect on their claims, said this was the worst example he’s seen of an improperly denied claim.
“The many ways the insurance companies can come up with to deny claims or payments is really extraordinary,” said Isaac, who was a claims adjuster before becoming a lawyer. “This was perhaps the most extraordinary of all, at least in my experience anyway. It just never made any sense.”•