Man wins house fire legal battle


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The Independent Online

A man has won a legal battle over an insurance company's refusal to pay up for a fire it claimed was deliberately started by his partner.

St Andrew's Insurance linked the January 2008 blaze in Margaret Street, Brighton - described in London's High Court as "the gay village" - to Tony Howe's tendency to "hissy fits".

But Mr Howe, who has been with Jonathan Smyth for close to seven years, said the fire, which killed the household's three cats, was an accident.

Ruling today in favour of Mr Smyth - who is claiming around £300,000 - solely on the issue of liability, Deputy Judge John Randall said the insurers had not satisfied him that the fire was started by Mr Howe.

It was more likely than not that it was started accidentally by a lit cigarette carelessly discarded or accidentally dislodged by Rebecca Alexander, who rented the basement room in the four-storey terrace where the fire began.

Ms Alexander, said the judge, was an "overly defensive" witness who made accusations against Mr Howe which led to him being arrested, before he was bailed without charge and told he was not to be prosecuted.

She agreed she was a messy person and the state of her room that evening, with strewn clothing, discarded tissues and a highly flammable bed cover, made it a serious fire hazard.

The judge said she was tired from her shift as a care worker in a children's home, and agitated from a shouting match started by Mr Howe, who had been drinking, about the messy kitchen.

She was also naturally careless in that she would often go out to the shops having left the hob on, he added.

"It would not be surprising if a naturally careless person such as Ms Alexander, in the stressful circumstances in which she found herself that evening, had either carelessly discarded, or accidentally dislodged without noticing, a lit cigarette when rapidly preparing to leave the house, or perhaps when getting up to challenge Mr Howe when he first shouted at her though the door."

The judge said Mr Howe, who was 37 at the time, was not then employed but conscientiously undertook the housework, being fastidious and house-proud.

Sometimes, he had tantrums, or "hissy fits", which were in the nature of attention-seeking behaviour rather than being dangerous or destructive.

Information security manager Mr Smyth, now of Cooperage Quay, Stirling, Scotland, affectionately called them "Tony Bear tantrums".

The judge said Mr Howe's essential account of matters and firm denial of arson had been calm and consistent throughout, and was convincing.

"I find there to be no cogent reasons - beyond the bare facts of the shouting match or argument which had occurred that evening, that Mr Howe was 'merry', and that he had once kicked out the wobbly spindles supporting a bannister while in a tantrum - for concluding that he deliberately started the fire, and that the preponderance of the available evidence, as well as a common sense view of inherent probabilities, is against such a conclusion."

For Mr Howe to have done so would have been an act of "extraordinary malice and recklessness", said the judge.