House fire insurance case set for October

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A Steamboat man's lawsuit against an insurance company for failing to pay for fire damages has been set for trial in October.

Scott Rouda is suing Farmers Insurance after the company determined an April fire in his Tree Haus home was arson and refused to pay insurance benefits to Rouda.

On Thursday, Judge Michael O'Hara set Oct. 4 as the start date for a five-day jury trial. An Aug. 13 pretrial conference also was set Thursday.

Rouda was not present for Thursday's hearing and was represented by attorney Ralph Cantafio. The insurance company was represented via a conference call.

Rouda, 45, is suing the insurance company for loss of income, along with impairment of credit, emotional distress and punitive damages. The suit 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 lawsuit, Rouda said the insurance company considered him the only suspect of arson.

"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 lawsuit 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, but it did deny that it acted maliciously or wrongfully, that it suggested prosecution or that it attempted to coerce Rouda to break the contract.

Rouda's $800,000 house was heavily damaged in a fire April 10. The basement and first floor of the 3,000-square-foot home were damaged. Part of the first floor collapsed after the fire was extinguished.

In a May 5 preliminary report, the fire investigator for the insurance company named arson as the cause of the fire. The determination was made from the elimination of other probable causes and because gasoline residue was found near the likely origin of the fire, court documents show.

The report indicated the fire started in the laundry room and was intentionally set. Gasoline was found near the origin, and an empty Bic lighter was found in a nearby wastebasket in the bathroom, court documents from the insurance company show.

The fire investigator's report indicated a "notable" lack of belongings and personal items in the house.

According to court documents, in an interview with Rouda, representatives from the insurance company asked if he had any involvement or responsibility in igniting the fire.

"Oh, God no," Rouda replied. "That's a silly question."

The night before the house burned, Rouda had slept at the home of Jean and Jeffrey Wolf, his neighbors. The weekend before the fire, Rouda had taken expensive pieces of artwork, including a Salvador Dali piece, and given them to friends, he told the insurance company.

Rouda said he was preparing for a move to Florida.

Rouda 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.

Rouda also was the caretaker of a Tree Haus home that was destroyed in a Dec. 9 fire. Coincidentally, that home is owned by Jean and Jeffrey Wolf. The Routt County Sheriff's Office called that December fire suspicious, and an investigation is continuing.

Rouda was out to dinner with the Wolfs the night the Wolfs' house caught fire.

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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