Court Says Intentional Fires Don’t Become Unintentional When They Burn An Unintended Object

I was raised in North Dakota, and I have also spent a considerable amount of time in Minnesota, and this case about two Minnesota guys who passed the time driving around and setting grass fires for the heck of it reminds me of a lot of people I grew up with.
In Union Pacific Railroad Co. v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Co., 2006 WL 90083 (D.Minn. January 13, 2006), two brothers aged 24 and 20 had been setting grass fires for about nine years using gasoline, lighters and flares. Their venue was open ground in rural areas somewhat west of Minneapolis. In deposition testimony, one brother was asked “Why do you burn grass?” He replied: “Don’t know, just do it.” He did clarify things by saying they never actually intended to “burn anything down,” including a Union Pacific wooden trestle that caught fire in 2000. The railroad sued the brothers, and took an assignment of insurance claims in lieu of seeking payment from the two. Union Pacific then sought to collect under the homeowners’ policy of the brothers’ parents.
The court held that coverage was precluded by the policy’s exclusion for damage that is expected or intended by the insured. Union Pacific echoed the brothers’ position that they did not intend to burn anything down. The court disagreed: “This is a case in which an individual with an extensive history of setting illegal fires, and a clear understanding of the dangers of the fires [one of the brothers had once been severely burned by one of the approximately 60 fires they set], intentionally chose a dry windy day to set a grass fire ten to sixty feet away from the wooden trestle.”

I can also tell you, as one who, as a kid, helped my father set controlled fires on our own farm to get rid of unwanted grass or straw, that setting grass fires is pretty fun. Disclaimer: No endorsement of the brothers’ grass fire addiction, or of the setting of illegal grass fires, should be implied by this last statement.

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Filed under Duty to Indemnify, Liability Policies, Settlements, Assignments and Reasonableness

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