Ties between Phoenix Fire Dept., insurer at issue in lawsuit
A so-called “hand-in-hand” relationship between the Phoenix Fire Department’s arson squad and a private insurance company is expected to come under scrutiny in the retrial of a civil lawsuit against the insurer by a woman wrongfully accused of setting fire to her home.
When the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office dismissed the criminal case against Barbara Sloan because of a lack of evidence, Deputy County Attorney Edward Leiter noted an “incestuous relationship” between the Phoenix Fire Department and Farmers Insurance, the case disposition worksheet says. Judge Christopher Whitten agreed, writing that the Fire Department and insurance company seemed to work “hand in hand,” minutes show.
In April, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Arthur Anderson overturned the verdict in the 2012 case he presided over and granted Sloan a new trial in her civil lawsuit against Farmers Insurance. A jury ordered Sloan to pay Farmers $1.68 million in legal fees after it ruled in 2012 that the insurance company did not act in bad faith by stopping payment on her claim.
A trial date has not been set.
Farmers and the Phoenix Fire Department both declined to comment for this story.
Requests for new civil trials are common but are rarely granted, Phoenix attorney Stephen I. Leshner said. The decision to grant Sloan one meant that there were “extraordinary facts” that were not presented during the first trial and kept it from being fair, he said.
The new trial could result in a multimillion-dollar swing in Sloan’s favor as her attorney, Mike Poli, alleges that a private investigator hired by Farmers, Robert Laubacher, was pressured by the insurer to change his opinion on the cause of the 2009 house fire near 40th Street and Campbell Avenue to arson from not arson.
The blaze was later traced to faulty car parts inside the garage.
Laubacher declined to comment for this story.
Fire Capt. Sam Richardson had deemed the blaze an arson the day of the fire, and he was later the subject of an Arizona Department of Public Safety investigation that resulted in the DPS accusing him of lying under oath. Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery questioned Richardson’s competency and integrity in October, when he declined to prosecute Richardson and a fellow arson-squad member in connection with their investigation of Sloan.
Laubacher, who is licensed through DPS, visited Sloan’s home two days after the fire and determined that it started from an unknown source and was not arson, Farmers Insurance documents show.
After several phone conversations, Richardson and Laubacher met in June 2009. Laubacher then decided to label the fire as human-caused but not name Sloan as the culprit, courts records show. About four hours later, the same records show he called an official at Farmers and expressed concerns about calling the house fire arson.
The reason Farmers wanted Laubacher to change his assessment, according to Poli, was that if Sloan were convicted of burning down her own home, the company would not have to pay her claim. Farmers paid more than $1 million to Sloan for her claim after the criminal case was dismissed.
Poli discovered the flip-flop while deposing Laubacher in the lead-up to the first civil trial. But attorneys for Farmers labeled Laubacher’s original findings “privileged information” during the trial and did not disclose Laubacher’s original report to Poli.
Laubacher refused to testify during the trial and took the Fifth Amendment when Anderson asked him a series of questions, including one about whether he faced pressure from Farmers to change his opinion, records show.
Law enforcement and insurance companies are often the agencies people call when they need help. But Leshner said that while law-enforcement officers have “prestige” that makes most people want to believe them, “there have been fire investigators who have had wrong theories for decades,” Leshner said. Insurance companies will fight customers on the “simplest, most head-scratching” of things because they want to avoid paying out the premiums they collect, he said.
“People act in their own interest when money is involved,” Leshner said.