One New Year's Eve, Clare Eugene Prisbrey's house caught fire. It took firefighters more than he an hour to gain control of the fire, and the house suffered serious damage. After investigating the scene that evening and the next day, firefighters came to suspect that Prisbrey had deliberately set the flame up, and the state later accused him of aggravated burn and filing a false insurance claim. At a preliminary hearing, however, the judge found no probable cause that Prisbrey had committed these crimes and refused to tie the case to trial. The state is appealing this decision and we confirm.
In State Of Utah v. Clare Eugene Prisbrey, 2020 UT App 172, No. 20190569-CA, Utah Court of Appeals (December 24, 2020) the State failed to prove that there was sufficient evidence for to bind Prisbrey to trial for burn and insurance fraud and appealed the judge's decision.
On December 31, 2017, Prisbrey and his girlfriend (girlfriend)) were together at Prisbrey's house and celebrated the holiday. A few weeks earlier, Prisbrey had decorated his living room (the great room) with Christmas decorations, including a miniature Christmas village – a collection of decorative ceramic houses arranged on foam blocks, wood and synthetic snow – set up on a table against a wall. At about 9:30 that evening, Prisbrey lit several candles in the Christmas village and later at 10 pm, he and his girlfriend opened a bottle of sparkling grape juice and saw fireworks on New Year's Eve happening in "different time zones."
A few minutes later, Prisbrey and his girlfriend left the house; Prisbrey explained to firefighters that he had made a "last minute" decision to propose marriage to his girlfriend that night and wanted to do so because of the local temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Just as Prisbrey and his girlfriend arrived at the temple and pulled into a parking lot, Prisbrey received a phone call from one of his neighbors informing him that his house was on fire. Firefighters arrived "about the same time" and began trying to extinguish the fire. At that time, the fire was already "50 percent involved", with "fire appearing from the roof and from the windows.
Once the fire had stopped, the manager began inspecting the damaged remains of the house and noticed some" red flags "that he thought would be able to indicate that the fire had been intentionally lit. Still, this information added to Chiefs' suspicions, and based on all the information he had at the time, he decided to notify the Utah State Fire Marshal's office to ask it to investigate.
Before entering the house, the marshal talked to Prisbrey, who was sitting in his vehicle in front of the house. Prisbrey told the marshal that he left the six candles lit in the Christmas village. After interviewing Prisbrey, the Marshal inspected the house. More significantly, Marshal noticed, along the wall between the garage and the great room, "two holes in the wall" that were located very close to where the Christmas car show had been (in the great room) and where the gas cans were (on the garage side).
Although he did not carry out any further investigations, the Marshal testified at the preliminary hearing that, in his opinion, "this was an arson."
Marshal confirmed that his opinion was not based on the presence. of accelerators, but was instead based on "the hole [s] in the walls, [the] the placement of the gas cans and the lit candles."
Shortly after the fire, Prisbrey notified his insurance company and filed a claim, which represents to the insurance company that he did not intentionally cause the fire. On January 2, 2018, the insurance company hired its own investigator (Investigator) to inspect the home and give an opinion on whether the fire was a fire, so that the insurance company could make a decision to pay the claim.  The investigator also focused on the two holes in the wall between the large room and the garage. In particular, he examined the relative damage on both sides of the wall, as well as on the plaster and the paper in the plaster wall along the sides of the holes, and concluded that the holes had been created after the fire, and not before. The investigator also noted the absence of fire damage inside the garage and observed that a fire that burned intensely enough to burn the drywall inside the room "would have entered the garage" if the holes had been present while the fire was burning.
Investigators informed the insurance company that his preliminary conclusion was that the fire was unintentional, and he later submitted a final written report confirming the conclusion and describing the basis for it. Partly based on Investigator's conclusion, the insurance company approved Prisbrey's claim and eventually paid him "over $ 350,000 in benefits" for, among other things, repairing the house and for temporary housing.
After the insurance company paid the claim, the State accused Prisbrey of grievous bodily harm, a first-degree crime and of filing a false insurance claim, a second-degree crime.
After the state had rested, Prisbrey called investigators and girlfriend. At the end of the hearing, the magistrate refused to bind Prisbrey on either charge and ruled that although the state's burden was not very high, the state had failed to meet that burden.
Interrogation is a fundamental procedural right guaranteed by Article I, Section 13 of the Utah Constitution. The state only needs to present reasonably credible evidence – contrary to speculation – that is sufficient to uphold every part of the crime in question.
Despite the relatively low limit of evidence at an interrogation, a judge may deny binding in certain situations. In fact, when properly interpreted and applied, the probable cause standard does not constitute a rubber stamp for the prosecution but rather provides a meaningful opportunity for judges to dismiss unfounded and incorrect prosecutions. In the same way, a judge can rightly deny binding where the facts presented by the indictment provide no more than a basis for speculation.
During a trial, conclusions that once seemed reasonable may prove unreasonable in further investigation. or no longer based on facts as evidence. And in exceptional cases, evidence presented by a defendant at an interrogation may overcome a prima facie that shows probable cause. The judge considered that this case was one of the rare cases where the state's evidence did not exceed the low probable cause barrier. And in this unique case, for two related reasons, we do not detect any abuse of the judge's limited space to reach this conclusion.
The evidence for the insurance company's investigation presented by the defense at the preliminary hearing served to overcome any remnants of reasonable conclusion that remained in the state's references to accelerators or holes in the wall. It is pointed out that the insurance company – at the time when it investigated the claim – was fully aware that local fire authorities were wondering about arson; that is why the company sent its own investigator to the site. And it goes without saying that the insurance company – given the $ 350,000 insurance claim – had every interest in making sure the fire was not started on purpose.
After considering all the evidence presented at the preliminary hearing, the judge ruled that the state's case was based on speculation and not on reasonable conclusions based on evidentiary facts. State theories do not tolerate an actual investigation of a unit with all the incentives to validate them.
Insurance companies are required to make a complete, thorough and fair investigation of each claim in each fire claim, even when a state fire investigator and a state prosecutor believe that the insured set fire to deceiving the insurer. Although the insurer's investigators found through a thorough investigation – unlike the state investigation – that the cause of the fire was unintentional and paid their insured more than $ 350,000. The state prosecuted the insured, regardless, only for attempting to tie the insured to trial for arson and for a judge to dismiss the charge for lack of evidence.
© 2020 – Barry Zalma
Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, now limits his practice to serving as an insurance consultant specializing in insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, fraud and insurance fraud almost equally for insurance companies and insurance companies. He also acts as an arbitrator or mediator for insurance-related disputes. He practiced law in California for more than 44 years as an insurance coverage and claims lawyer and more than 52 years in the insurance industry. He is available at http://www.zalma.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mr. Zalma is the first recipient of the first annual Claims Magazine / ACE Legend Award.
For the past 53 years, Barry Zalma has devoted his life to insurance, insurance claims and the need to defeat insurance fraud. He has created the following library of books and other materials to enable insurance companies and their claims staff to become insurance claims personnel.
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