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Insurer fails in attempt to hold son responsible for fire

A Statesville jury spent less than 30 minutes deliberating before returning a verdict in favor of a defendant in a negligence suit filed by his father’s insurance company.

Peerless Insurance Company claimed Michael Walker, a city manager from Brentwood, Tennessee, had negligently caused a fire at his father, Joseph Walker’s mountain home in Blowing Rock. The fire occurred in July 2010 after a weekend gathering at the home.  After the gathering, Michael Walker was asked by his father to close up and lock the home.

At trial in November 2012, it was determined that Joseph Walker’s typical routine included turning off the power to the water heater by throwing the circuit breaker in the breaker box, located in the poorly lit garage.

Michael Walker flipped a breaker which he believed controlled the water heater, but after getting a flashlight he saw that a breaker labeled “kitchen circuit” was in the off position. Believing he had accidentally turned off power to the main kitchen, Walker turned the kitchen circuit back on. He then turned off the water heater, checked the appliances in the main kitchen to make sure they had power, and left the house.

Three hours later Michael received a phone call from his father telling him the home had burned down. It was later determined that the “kitchen circuit” breaker did not refer to the main kitchen, but instead controlled power to an apartment-sized range in the basement of the home.  The range had not been used in the 24 years the Walkers had owned the home, but one of the burner knobs had been turned on at some point. Consequently, when the breaker was activated, the burner on the range came on and eventually resulted in the fire.

Peerless alleged negligence on the part of Michael Walker, who argued the fire was an accident which was partially due to his father’s contributory negligence of failing to unplug the range or place a caution on the breaker. The jury agreed and after short deliberation returned a verdict in favor of Michael Walker, finding no negligence.

“Based on the quick verdict, it appears the jury was not impressed that (Peerless) came after (Joseph Walker’s) adult son for what was a true accident,” said Walker’s Hickory attorney, Susan Matthews of Patrick Harper & Dixon, “One pays insurance premiums just for this reason, so that there are proceeds when an accident occurs.”



Injuries alleged: Property damage

Name of case: NC Peerless Insurance Company v. Michael Walker

Court: U.S.  District Court for the Western District of N.C., Statesville Division

Case number: 11-cv-00127

Judge: Richard L. Voorhees

Demand: $410,000

Amount: $0

Date of verdict: Nov. 7, 2012

Attorneys for plaintiff: Karen Fultz (Atlanta) and Angela Mason (Charlotte) of Cozen O’Conner

Attorneys for defendant: Stephen M. Thomas and Susan W. Matthews of Patrick Harper & Dixon (Hickory),

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