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'System works,' says winner of insurance case

State Farm will have to pay more than $240,000 for a man's home and its contents after failing to prove he set a fire.

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2000


TAMPA -- Former police Officer Darrell W. Manning didn't set the fire in 1997 that destroyed his Dade City home and killed three dogs, and the insurance company accusing him of arson owes him nearly a quarter-million dollars for his loss, a jury found Tuesday.

Manning, 52, wept and hugged his attorney on hearing the news, saying, "I had nothing to do with it." It was just what the lawyer, Doug Grose, had been telling the jury in U.S. District Court all morning, portraying the retired officer as the victim of callous, biased agents and investigators from State Farm.

"I believe the system works, and the little guy can go up against the big guy," said Manning, moments after the jury awarded him $242,031.29 for the cost of his home, its contents, trees and shrubs, living expenses and debris removal.

The verdict, reached in three hours by the jury of five men and three women, came after a morning of passionate closing arguments. State Farm attorney Gerald Albrecht told the jury that Manning had "all the motive in the world to set this fire," since a divorce had plunged him at least $40,000 in debt.

"He was borrowing money left and right before this fire, and even after this fire," Albrecht said. He said Manning, who had taken out three mortgages on the house, wanted to keep the property and build a new house on it. "He would make more burning it than selling it," Albrecht said.

State Farm found it suspicious that the remains of badges from Manning's 20 years with the St. Petersburg Police Department did not turn up in the ashes, suggesting to agents that he removed them ahead of time.

While pour patterns in the ruins of the house suggest a liquid accelerant, investigators could not pinpoint exactly what started the fire, Albrecht argued. "No one has the match," he said. "No one's going to find the match."

In his closing argument, Grose, Manning's attorney, derided the claim of arson as "unscientific speculation." Grose added: "Speculation's a nice word for simply making things up."

A previous jury heard the case in March but deadlocked. With the verdict settled Tuesday, Manning's attorneys said they will consider filing a suit accusing State Farm of bad faith in its failure to honor Manning's insurance policy, in which they may seek punitive damages.

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Staff writer Christopher Goffard covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is goffard@sptimes.com.

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