Investigation

Here we detail the actions taken by IAG their investigators and lawyers who followed the DELAY, DENY, DEFEND system to allow IAG to avoid meeting the valid claims caused by the destruction of Killara.

A loss adjuster from McLarens, Whangarei arrived on 12 September 2011, after a few minutes discussing the property with Chris Robinson he suggested a ‘walk away’ settlement for the house of around $1M possibly a little more when he had more details, he then moved on to wanting a list of the actual content items lost.

Chris was still in shock and found visiting the scene very distressing, he told the assessor that they had received an offer to purchase the property of $2.995M less than a year earlier and Contracts had been produced, falling through due to the mortgage ‘crunch’ that was in place following the Global Financial crash of 2008. Later the loss adjuster would call several times asking if they had considered his settlement offer but naturally the insured felt it wasn’t realistic.

This ‘Low ball’ offer was based, they now believe, on the QV valuation of the property. They found out, years later, that this valuation was $1.6M with the land being $600,000 of the total, this was the price they had paid in 2005. On checking with QV they found that the valuation was on a 1985 property of 300sq m which had no relation to their property, QV also confirmed that they had no details of any improvements done to the property since 1990.

The Investigation

Russell Joseph initially spent three days, September 14 – 16 2011, investigating the fire, Chris spoke to him daily as he requested. Looking at the images Joseph took of the scene in this period there does not appear to be anything wrong apart from some very lax evidence collection methods by Joseph.

It is clear from the number of images he took of the forced entry area and the rocks on the bedroom balcony that he considered them very significant. On leaving the scene after the third day he told the insured that he was sure the fire was arson, he was friendly at this point and made no indication that he suspected the insured.

The fire investigators bible, NFPA 921 Guide to Fire and Explosion Investigation, 2011 edition, highlights the issue facing the investigation.

Chapter 17, section 1 states – ‘The origin of a fire is one of the most important hypotheses that an investigator develops and tests during the investigation. Generally, if the origin cannot be determined, the cause cannot be determined, and generally, if the correct origin is not identified,the subsequent cause determination will also be incorrect.

Joseph had failed to find the POINT of origin of the fire, he claimed that the library was the Area of Origin, but in it he failed to find any ignition items or identify the first fuel that caused the fire.

In reality, the library may have been the primary area of origin but there is no proof without finding the point of origin itself, it may have been a secondary fire area caused by burning materials from elsewhere in the property lighting material in this area.

Unlike the majority of homes in New Zealand Killara had two floors and these were unusual in that the main living rooms were upstairs with bedrooms on the ground floor. The debris and remains of the first floor were on top of the debris of the ground floor. For example, the remains of the two NZ sourced sofas from the open plan kitchen, lounge on the first floor were found in the library. This clearly confused Joseph who looked at the debris as a 2D scene rather than the 3D property.

The lack of a point of origin is consistent with manual ignition, somebody just walking around the property setting light to flammable items such as NZ made sofa’s that did not have fire retardants incorporated into the fillings. Most people in New Zealand have been educated in Sofa fires by the annual demonstrations of the ferocity of the fire when one is set alight, provided by the students at Otago University during Orientation Week!  

Otago Couch Fire
An Otago Couch fire – NZ does not force the use of fire retardant upholstery.

Russell Joseph has no scientific or fire investigation qualifications, not even the Certified Fire Investigator qualification offered by his own chapter of the IAAI.

With the low settlement refused and Joseph having found loads of evidence of intruders and no way to connect the fire to the insured, IAG at some point decided to enact the DELAY, DENY, DEFEND system to this fire claim to avoid meeting a multimillion-dollar claim.

DELAY

Everything then went into slow motion, Russell Joseph returning to the fire scene with a different brief on 8 November’11 – he needed to find evidence to use against the insured.

He cleared the majority of the debris off the front section of the Library finding nothing and piling the debris he had searched through under the end of the beam at the western end of the library.

Moved debris

He failed to find anything that could form part of the ignition system he was desperately searching for.

It was past 5pm when he started to search for evidence of accelerants. He hadn’t found anything in his earlier 3 day visit but this time he knew exactly where he would find the evidence!

  • Back door and stairs
    The BACK Door! Extensively used by Fire Service and the investigators as access to the least damaged section of the property.

Look carefully at these images, Joseph has removed the remains off the staircase including a burnt beam. A trail of liquid poured down the stairs would naturally remain and burn mostly on the horizontal treads of the stairs but here we see the damage is largely confined to the vertical riser of the step. This would happen if a burning beam radiating heat fell onto the stair with heat radiating out and upwards rather than below it onto the riser of the step.

Note also the area around the door, MDF panelling survives here, unique here destroyed totally elsewhere, only the bottom 5 steps of the stair remain, a large pool of accelerant here would have caused a major fire centre here yet it is the best preserved area in the whole fire scene.

Joseph easily and quickly found his evidence of Accelerant because he falsified it in a stupid but easy to reach location. This is the first photographic record of the falsification of evidence by IAG’s investigators.

The bigger problem with this evidence is that NFPA 921 contains evidence that marks the look identical to Accelerant trails and pooling marks can occur in fires where no accelerant was present. This leads to this sort of evidence being inadmissible at a trial unless supported by Forensic sampling of the debris proving accelerant was present and Russell Joseph didn’t have any samples at all.

Whilst this helped the investigation was in serious trouble, they could see no way to link the insured, 400Km away with causing the fire, then they had a massive piece of LUCK!

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