House fire case off to court

Scott Rouda suing insurance company over Tree Haus blaze

A California insurance company thinks arson caused a fire that heavily damaged a Tree Haus home last April.

Scott Rouda, the homeowner, is suing Farmers Insurance over its decision on the cause of the fire and subsequent refusal to pay insurance benefits. The two parties are scheduled to appear in court Thursday for a hearing.

Rouda's $800,000 house was heavily damaged in a fire April 10.

Coincidentally, after his home was damaged, Rouda became the caretaker of another Tree Haus home, owned by Jean and Jeffrey Wolf, that was destroyed in a fire Dec. 9. The cause of that fire is under investigation; however, the Routt County Sheriff's Office said the speed with which that blaze spread makes it suspicious.

An insurance company fire investigator thinks the April 10 fire, which started in the laundry room, was set intentionally. Gasoline was found at the origin of the fire, and a Bic lighter without any fuel was found in a nearby wastebasket in the bathroom, according to court documents from the insurance company.

The sheriff's office and the Steamboat Springs Fire Marshal continue to investigate the April 10 fire but have not determined a cause.

In the May 5 preliminary report, Thomas McAdam, a fire investigator for the insurance company, said arson was determined from the elimination of other probable causes and the gasoline residue.

The heat source for the fire most likely was an open flame, McAdam's report notes, and no accidental heat source was near the origin of the fire.

McAdam's report also indicated there was a lack of belongings and personal items in the house.

In an interview with representatives from the insurance company, Rouda said he had hauled out expensive pieces of art, including work by Salvador Dali, the weekend before and given them to friends in Denver.

Rouda said during the interview that he had plans to move to Florida and pursue scuba diving. Most of his other belongings had been sold in garage sales or given away, he said.

"You know you can't sell a Salvador Dali that way," he told investigators. "Actually my friends were reluctant to accept them because of the value. ... I told them they are yours because they are just not in my future plans anymore."

The night before the fire, Rouda said during the interview, he had gone to a Helping Paws training session with Jean Wolf and out to dinner at Mambo Italiano.

Rouda said the last time he was in the house was between 9:30 and 10 p.m. that night before going to the Wolfs' house. Rouda said he spent the night at the Wolfs' home and did not know his house was on fire until a neighbor informed him the next morning.

Coincidentally, Rouda was out to dinner with the Wolfs the night the Wolfs' Tree Haus home caught fire.

About 6:30 a.m. April 10, a neighbor spotted smoke coming from the roofline of Rouda's house. The fire department responded to the fire before 7 a.m. and had it extinguished by 8:15 a.m.

The fire damaged the basement and the first floor of the 3,000-square-foot home.

Part of the first floor collapsed after the fire was extinguished.

Rouda, 45 and originally from Ohio, had his house on the market for about two years before the fire. The house originally was appraised at $975,000, but at the time of the fire was on the market for $875,000. The mortgage on the house was for $645,000, court documents show.

Rouda is suing the insurance company for loss of income, along with impairment of credit, emotional distress and punitive damages. The lawsuit states the insurance company is delayed in its benefit payments, negligent in its investigation of the fire and manipulative in implying Rouda committed arson.

In the suit, Rouda said the insurance company considered him the only suspect.

"Farmers Insurance has maliciously and wrongfully suggested prosecution involving this matter, so as to coerce Mr. Rouda into breaking his obligation to Farmers Insurance," the suit reads.

In its response, Farmers Insurance said it does not deny the allegation that Rouda is the only person considered as a suspect in starting the fire. The insurance company said it did not act maliciously or wrongfully, suggest prosecution or attempt to coerce Rouda into breaking the contract.

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