Toronto·CBC Investigates

'How many times can I lose everything?': Insurance claim denied after woman's spouse sets fire to bedroom

An Ontario woman whose husband set fire to their bed is being denied her insurance claim even though she was the victim of the arson.

Patchwork of legislation across the country means insurance companies don't always have to pay

Terri-lynn Robison's home sustained $160,000 in damage after her husband deliberately set fire to the bed. Robison's insurance company has denied her claim even though she was the victim of the arson. (Rachel Houlihan/CBC)

Terri-lynn Robison stands in the burned-out shell of her bedroom, still in disbelief that her husband set fire to the bed while she was in the room.

Last year, following a heated argument, she told her husband of 11 years their relationship was over and started packing his clothes. 

'He came back down with a barbecue lighter and set the whole bedskirt on fire, just from one end straight to the other.'- Terri-lynn Robison

"He went upstairs, and I thought he was going to leave," she told CBC News. "He came back down with a barbecue lighter and set the whole bedskirt on fire, just from one end straight to the other." 

Robison grabbed the dog and her cellphone and escaped unharmed. Her husband, Adam Van Es, was arrested that night and later charged with one count of arson with disregard for human life. He pleaded guilty and in March was sentenced to two years less a day. 

"I'm lucky I got out," said Robison, who lives in Collingwood, Ont., about 150 km northwest of Toronto.

What luck she had would soon run out. Despite being a victim of arson, Robison's insurance company, Allstate, denied her claim. The company says her "VIP" homeowner policy is "null and void" because her husband, who was insured under the same policy, had intentionally set the fire. 

Partner's actions 'intentional or criminal'

It turns out, the law is on Allstate's side.

In Ontario, insurance companies can deny a claim from a victim if the actions of anyone else on the policy are deemed "intentional or criminal."

A CBC News investigation has uncovered several cases like Robison's in which a spouse set fire to a shared property. The innocent partner can be left paying for repairs out of pocket or, worse, left homeless. 

What's more, where a victim lives can determine whether they will be compensated, highlighting an inequity in insurance coverage across Canada. 

The bedroom of Robison's home before the fire. (Royal Lepage Locations North Realty)
The bedroom after the fire. (Rachel Houlihan/CBC)

B.C., Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec all have laws compelling companies such as Allstate to pay out claims to what are called "innocent co-insureds." Saskatchewan anticipates it will have an amendment to its insurance act in effect by 2018.

In Ontario and the rest of Canada, insurance companies can deal with such claims at their discretion. 

"Anytime you can pass a law that prevents people from having to see lawyers, that's a good thing," says Scott Stanley, a B.C. lawyer who represents clients in claims against insurance companies. "It's unusual that an insurance company will take steps to increase the probability of a payout when the government hasn't forced them to do that.

"My experience with insurance companies is that they will do what they are required to do, and nothing more."

Anytime you can pass a law that prevents people from having to see lawyers, that's a good thing.- B.C. lawyer Scott Stanley

Stanley says he used to handle arson cases just like Robison's about once a year. But since B.C.'s law came into effect five years ago, he hasn't had a single one. 

The regulations do have a caveat: Insurance companies are only required to pay the innocent party their half share of the claim, and the party who committed the criminal act does not receive any payout.

Stanley says the law offers victims a measure of protection. He says Canadians shouldn't have to be "at the mercy of" insurance companies.

CBC News contacted Ontario's Minister of Finance to see if there are plans to change the province's Insurance Act to protect innocent co-insureds. A spokesperson said they were looking into it.

A way to 'dehumanize'

Property damage is often a hallmark of abusive relationships, says Paula Del Cid, residential program manager at Interval House, Canada's first shelter for women and children.

In her 10 years, Del Cid says she has heard countless stories of kicked-in doors, smashed-in walls and ripped-up clothes. Property destruction is often about sending a message, she says.

"That message can be: I can do this to your property and the same thing can happen to you," she says. "It's like an extra show of who's in control, and it's also another way to dehumanize a person." 

In cases where a home is completely destroyed, Del Cid says an insurance company's refusal to provide coverage re-victimizes someone who may have nothing but the clothing on their back.

Robison's living room before the fire. (Royal Lepage Locations North Realty)
And after. (Rachel Houlihan/CBC)

A rotting house

From the outside, Robison's small two-storey house looks like every other neatly kept home on her street. For almost a year, she has dutifully shovelled snow, mowed the lawn and picked up the mail. But inside, the fridge is teeming with maggots. The rancid stench of smoke is overwhelming. The basement is wet and mouldy. It is rotting from the inside out. 

Robison found herself living in a women's shelter for nearly a month. If her insurance claim had been approved, she likely would have stayed in a hotel until temporary housing could be secured — all at the expense of the insurance company. 

Robison has made efforts to maintain the exterior of her home, shown before the fire, but says it is rotting from the inside. (Royal Lepage Locations North Realty)

"Insurance is meant to protect you. But in this case it's not protecting you from your own partner," says Del Cid. "And it's under circumstances where your life was basically at risk." 

Allstate did give Robison $10,000, but letters from the company seen by CBC News made it clear that "Allstate is not obliged to try and resolve the matter."

The cost to repair the house is pegged at at least $160,000 — not a cost she can afford on her salary as a cook at a retirement home.

How many times can I lose everything?- Terri-lynn Robison

She was able to pay the mortgage until January of this year, but with rent and car payments, her finances are stretched to the limit. The bank, she imagines, may soon foreclose on the property.

"How many times can I lose everything?" she says. "I lost it once. I lost it again when they denied my claim." 

All of it, she says, is made worse by knowing that if she lived in a province with different insurance laws, Allstate would be forced to pay out. 

"I'm facing real bankruptcy. [Allstate] won't settle. They just have everything in limbo," she says. "It's been 11 months. That's a long time to have your house sitting there rotting." 

In response to questions from CBC News, Allstate said it is now willing to review its policies in cases like Robison's, suggesting it will consider extending coverage to victims of violence even where provincial law doesn't insist on it. 

Robison has yet to hear directly from Allstate whether her claim will be reassessed, but she is hopeful. 

"They should do the right thing. And not just for me — I know I'm not the only victim," she said. "I'm tired of being punished over and over and over for something I just didn't do."

'They should do the right thing. And not just for me — I know I'm not the only victim,' says Robison of the insurance company. (Rachel Houlihan/CBC)