State Farm Tried to Nail Its Customers for Arson, but the Bad Guys Were Firefighters

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State Farm, in October 2004, paid the Johnsons' about $41,000 of the requested $238,000, leaving the rest of the claim unresolved.

Also that month, as if this case needed another twist, water pipes burst at the Johnsons' residence, the home they remained in because of the fire.

They said the damage by the flood ruined thousands of dollars of new personal property they had bought in the fire's aftermath.

But State Farm investigators suspected that at least some of the water-ruined items were the same as those the Johnsons claimed had burned up in the fire.

If true, that would be felony insurance fraud. But, again, proof was lacking.

In early 2005, another State Farm special investigator, Lisa Grant, picked up the Johnsons' file — the fire and the water claims.

Within just a few days, Grant asked the Arizona Department of Insurance to consider the Johnsons for criminal prosecution on fraud charges.

But a state investigator concluded that the information from State Farm "did not establish a basis to allege that criminal fraud had occurred."

Again thwarted, State Farm decided in mid-2005 to question the Johnsons in an "examination under oath," a tool used by insurers to grill their customers in contested claims cases.

Betty Johnson told an attorney for the insurer about the aftermath of the fire, "It was a very devastating time, so it was very hard to remember everything that I'd been packing up over the months before."

Nothing she said swayed State Farm, which decided internally to deny the rest of the Johnsons' personal-property claim for losses in the fire.

Also, the insurer still had not done anything about the couple's flood claim, another sum of about $40,000.

Then, in late 2005, State Farm tried to pull a fast one.

The Johnsons' insurance agent agreed to settle his lawsuit — the one that accused him of negligently underinsuring the couple — for $5,000.

State Farm sent that amount to the couple but also included a "general release" document with the other paperwork.

By signing it, the Johnsons would have released State Farm from "all liability whatsoever," including pending personal-property claims and future lawsuits that the couple might file against the company.

The Johnsons' current attorney, Steve Silverman, recently told a judge of State Farm's gambit: "At the base of it, it was a heavy-handed tactic that said, 'Take it, or we're going to bury you further.'"

Betty and Mike Johnson declined to sign the document.

The County Attorney's Office had not forgotten its stalled criminal case against the firefighters.

In November 2005, a grand jury indicted Darryl Lanning on arson and other felonies unrelated to the Johnson case, including helping torch two of his pal Joe Avey's vehicles for insurance money.

Lanning pleaded guilty to arson in March 2006 and agreed to testify against his former firefighter buddies if it came to that.

Indictments against Joe Avey and Chris Bishop followed. Like Lanning, Avey also faced several felonies other than breaking into and burning down the Johnsons' home.

Chris Bishop, too, was facing charges of arson and burglary, though no evidence suggested that he had served as anything more than the getaway driver.

Bishop went on trial in February 2008, with Darryl Lanning as the first prosecution witness.

The irony that Robert Brewster, the alleged architect of the arson plot, was getting off scot-free as Bishop faced prison time did not escape trial observers, including Betty Johnson.

Chris Bishop's trial ended with his acquittal.

Joe Avey pleaded guilty to arson a few months later.

In May 2008, Lanning and Avey each was sentenced to three years in prison. Lanning already had served most of that time in jail and was released from prison a few months later.

Avey was released last August.

State Farm's sneaky "general release" ploy had failed and, in April 2006, the company paid the Johnsons about $38,000 to cover losses claimed in the house flood.

But the company officially denied the rest of the Johnsons' claim for the property allegedly lost in the fire — by then more than $200,000.

That led the Johnsons in May 2006 to sue State Farm for bad faith and breach of contract.

State Farm responded by countersuing the couple for fraud and asking for all of its money back — more than $800,000 in all.

State Farm has very deep pockets and can wear down litigants over time. But the Johnsons stayed the course and, last March, accepted a $250,000 "offer of judgment" from State Farm, akin to a settlement.

The judgment deals with what happened before the Johnsons filed the May 2006 lawsuit against State Farm.

That didn't end matters in this protracted case. In June, the Johnsons filed a new lawsuit against State Farm, claiming, among other things, that the company had abused the legal process by filing its countersuit.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin