Nationwide accuses plaintiff of arson in trial under way in St. Clair County

Jurors in St. Clair County Circuit Judge Vincent Lopinot’s courtroom heard conflicting accounts from plaintiff and defense attorneys in a breach of contract trial under way against Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company and Wottowa Insurance Agency.

William Cumberland III and William Cumberland Jr., who operated American Floor Designs, allege in their 2008 lawsuit that their insurer wrongfully denied a fire claim after the building where the men operated their tile and carpet business -- American Floor Designs in Caseyville -- was destroyed by fire on Feb. 17, 2008.

According to plaintiff’s attorney Paul Slocomb, the insurance company wrongfully denied the claim.

Nationwide's attorney David Mueller, however. told jurors on Tuesday that  the younger Cumberland started the fire to collect insurance money for his overwhelming business debts.

“Billy was the last person in the building on Saturday,” Mueller said.

The fire was reported at 11:24 p.m. (Feb. 16, 2008), and he was the first person in the building the following day, Mueller said.

Cumberland had the motive and the opportunity to start the fire, according to Mueller.

But Slocomb said his client was in tears when he arrived on the scene.

“He’s distraught," Slocomb said. "He’s talking to whoever is there.

“They are alleging Billy Cumberland started the fire. Billy Cumberland did not start the fire."

Slocomb said the insurance company claims Cumberland started the fire, because they recovered paper that started the fire.

“They’re saying Billy was there at the time of the fire," Slocomb said. "He freely admits he is there within an hour of when this occurred."

According to Mueller, the facts and the evidence would present a “far different picture.”

“We’re here for a truth-seeking process," Mueller said. "The evidence is going to take us the rest of the way."

Whoever set the fire had keys, and keys were limited, Mueller said.

“Did anyone have a motive to set this fire?" he asked. "Only one person had a motive. That was Billy Cumberland."

Mueller told the jury the purpose of insurance is to protect its customers from unanticipated tragedies, not intentional losses.

“An insurance company has the right and the duty to investigate a claim, and to investigate the merits of the complaint,” Mueller said. “American Floor Designs and Billy Cumberland agreed in the event of loss that they would cooperate with an investigation.”

John Cassidy of Cassidy & Mueller also represents the defense.

St. Clair County case number 08-L-663.

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