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Cause of fire is key issue in lawsuit

A retired police officer wants an insurance company to pay his claim. State Farm says he had a hand in setting the blaze that destroyed his home.

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 18, 2000


TAMPA -- Darrell W. Manning, a 20-year police veteran, has seen a lot of ugly scenes in his time. But there was something different, he testified Wednesday, when he saw what the fire had done to his Dade City house in August 1997, with the embers still burning in the smoky wreckage.

"I never witnessed anything like that. It was a disaster," Manning, 52, said under questioning from his lawyer. The house, he said, "was part of my life."

What caused that fire is the core question in U.S. District Court this week. Manning has sued State Farm insurance company seeking payment on a $189,000 policy. In a counterclaim, State Farm contends Manning torched the house himself -- or had it done -- for profit, and later lied about it to investigators.

State Farm attorneys say Manning, who retired from the St. Petersburg Police Department as a sergeant in 1990, was in financial straits because of a divorce only a few weeks before the fire. The blaze killed three dogs belonging to his ex-wife. Some of Manning's valued possessions never turned up in the ashes.

Manning testified he was in California at the time of the fire and had nothing to do with it. He said he was not in financial trouble at the time, with an $85,000 annual income from teaching jobs and from his work at a Tampa juvenile-justice facility.

A State Farm attorney suggested Manning was $50,000 in debt the year of the fire, questioned whether the divorce was amicable, and suggested Manning twice told his ex-wife that he would burn down the house, though Manning denied it on the stand.

The trial is expected to continue into next week.

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