Canada·CBC Investigates

'I want someone to take my pain': Woman set on fire by husband denied home insurance payout

Wendy Soczek won her fight for survival after her husband intentionally set her on fire back in 2010. But earlier this month, she lost her legal fight for a payout from her insurance company to fix her home.

Allstate puts up legal fight despite telling CBC News it would review its handling of such criminal cases

In May 2010, Wendy Soczek's husband sprayed her with gasoline and lit her on fire. She spent nine weeks in a coma, and when she woke up, she learned her insurance company wouldn't cover the damage to her home. (Rachel Houlihan/CBC)

UPDATED: Hours after this story was published online, Allstate contacted Wendy Soczek's lawyer with a settlement offer. Soczek plans to review the offer.

Tears rolled down Wendy Soczek's cheeks as she looked at a picture of her husband.

For 32 years, they had a happy marriage, well-paying jobs and a large, comfortable home just outside of Toronto.

But in May of 2010, after weeks of intense paranoia, including about his wife's fidelity, Soczek's husband sprayed her with gasoline and lit her on fire. The flames from her burning body spread through the lower level of their house.

The 59-year-old struggled to find the words to convey her shock, which remains fresh.

"My husband is very good before," she said with a thick Polish accent. "He never sick. We never have problem. We have two kids, grandchildren."

Her husband was charged with attempted murder and Soczek would spend nine weeks in a coma, eventually undergoing 30 surgeries.

"I lucky (for) God. He give me a second life," she said.

Yet after fighting for her life, Soczek's next fight would be with her home insurance company, Allstate. It denied her claim to repair the house, citing a clause that allows the company to nullify the policy if anyone named on it commits an "intentional or criminal" act against the property.

Not an isolated case

Soczek's experience mirrors several others uncovered in a CBC News investigation published earlier this month. In another case, Allstate denied a woman a payout after her husband set their bed on fire when she asked him for a divorce. Terri-lynn Robison escaped unharmed but she's now facing bankruptcy while carrying a mortgage on a house that's been left to rot for almost a year.

A major part of the problem for Soczek and Robison is they live in Ontario.

British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec are the only provinces with laws that compel insurance companies to pay out claims to innocent victims, or "innocent co-insureds." Saskatchewan anticipates it will have a law in place early next year. Elsewhere in Canada, including in Ontario, claimants must rely on the goodwill of the insurance company.

Soczek's lawyer, Alf Kwinter, was stunned when he read CBC's story about Allstate denying Robison a payout. He'd been in court the day before arguing Soczek's case.

"I open up my computer as I do every morning and there's the story of this lady in Collingwood burned out of her house for a fire her husband started," he said. "And I say, 'Oh my god.'"

Allstate denied Soczek's claim to repair the house after her husband intentionally set her on fire. The company cited a clause that allows it to nullify the policy if anyone named on it commits an 'intentional or criminal' act against the property. (Rachel Houlihan/CBC)

When asked about Robison's case, Allstate told CBC it would review its handling of "current claims and policy wordings to ensure fair application of laws across all jurisdictions." Yet despite what it told CBC, the company was simultaneously in court fighting the claim for repairs to Soczek's home, which its own assessment put at $265,000.

In fact, it wasn't just denying the claim — Allstate wanted Soczek to pay its legal fees as well. Those costs would amount to tens of thousands of dollars.

Kwinter says he's had at least six cases where a client was denied coverage after a spouse destroyed a property.

He says all the insurers, not just Allstate, relied on the "criminal or intentional" exclusion and the gap in provincial laws to make their case. Sadly, he says, it's often a winning strategy.

'Fundamental decency'

Soczek lost her case; the decision was delivered by Judge Edward Morgan just days after CBC published its investigation. However, Morgan did have some pointed words for Allstate, calling its conduct "less than admirable."

"This case graphically illustrates the compounding of injuries which Allstate's policy imposes on victims of domestic violence," he wrote.

Allstate's use of an exclusion, which has been "legislated out of existence" in some provinces, raised questions about "fairness and fundamental decency," he wrote.

While Morgan did dismiss Soczek's claim, the judge didn't order her to pay Allstate's legal fees.

"I shocked," Soczek said of the decision. "I victim … I no do nothing."

'Strong insurance lobby'

Ontario Liberal MPP Mike Colle says he was "taken aback" when he read CBC's initial story about Robison. He's introducing a private member's bill tomorrow aimed at forcing insurers to pay out in such cases.

"I've let people in the insurance industry know that this has got to be fixed," he said. "They know they can't stand by and let this injustice continue."

As CBC News reported earlier this month, Terri-lynn Robison's home sustained $160,000 damage after her husband deliberately set fire to the bed. Allstate denied her claim even though she was the victim of the arson. (Rachel Houlihan/CBC)

If his bill passes, which he hopes will happen by June, that would still leave the Atlantic provinces and the North without a similar law.

"I can't see who's gonna object to it," Colle said. "Who's going to object to providing justice to innocent partners?"

But Kwinter, who has worked as a personal injury lawyer for 40 years, is less optimistic.

"I think the province has a very strong insurance lobby quite frankly," he said. "I just don't see this as being at the top of their agenda. I don't think they're going to rush to to change the law very quickly."

Kwinter says until the law is changed, he fears the next person to knock on his door will have "the same story" as Soczek.

Change doesn't happen 'overnight'

Family, friends, neighbours and strangers alike showed up to rebuild Soczek's house in the years following the fire. Physiotherapists and massage therapists donated hours of their time to help her regain mobility. The physical injuries and emotional trauma have left her unable to work and she lives on $1,080 a month from disability and CPP payments.

Soczek's husband, Jan, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for attempted murder. His statutory release is coming up in fall 2018, and Soczek says her concern about his mental stability compounds her stress.

"I want someone to take my pain and see how I feeling," she said.

Soczek's physical injuries and emotional trauma have left her unable to work. (Rachel Houlihan/CBC)

When CBC asked Allstate about Soczek's case, it reiterated that it's in the "process of reviewing (its) practices and policy wordings concerning the issue of innocent co-insureds." However, it said these reviews "do not happen overnight."

Allstate says its lawyers will be reaching out to Soczek's lawyer "with a view to come to a resolution."

Soczek has yet to hear from Allstate. 

Woman set on fire by husband denied home insurance payout

6 years ago
Duration 1:58
Allstate puts up legal fight despite telling CBC News it would review its handling of such criminal cases

As she sat at her kitchen table, flipping through a copy of her VIP home insurance policy, she said with anger:  "Nobody have heart."


Rachel Houlihan

Producer, CBC Investigations Unit

Rachel Houlihan is an award-winning investigative journalist and producer working in TV, radio and online. She has nearly 20 years experience producing documentaries, current affairs pieces and news reports for CBC both domestically and internationally. Her most recent work includes investigations into sexual abuse within the RCMP, global ticket scalping schemes and offshore tax havens.