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Sunday, January 26, 2020

Fire fraud claim at trial: California Casualty questions displaced family's tanning salon, Rams tickets expenditures

By Heather Isringhausen Gvillo | Aug 3, 2016

Insurance 03

California Casualty Insurance and Exchange argues that a Waterloo family filed fraudulent reimbursement requests after the family’s basement was destroyed by a fire in 2009.

Opening statements began Monday in a trial in St. Clair County, presided over by Associate Judge Heinz Rudolf.

Plainiffs Jarvia and Nickey Bryant are represented by Kenneth Brennan of KenBrennan Law in Collinsville.


Defendants California Casualty Insurance Exchange and California Casualty Management Company are represented by John Cunningham and Denise Baker-Seal of Brown & James in Belleville.

The Bryants filed a first amended complaint on Oct. 15, 2012, alleging their two-story home caught fire after Christmas in 2009 as a result of a faulty space heater in the basement. At the time of the fire, the Bryants lived in the home with their three daughters and infant granddaughter.

In her Monday afternoon testimony, Bryant said she came home after shopping to find her dogs terrified and the smoke detectors going off. When she opened the basement door, she stated that black smoke billowed from downstairs.

Following the fire, Bryant said that the company All Clean was responsible for determining what could be saved and what had to be replaced. The family was then responsible for itemizing everything and creating a replacement inventory.

During the cleaning process, the family stayed in a hotel in St. Louis for roughly three months. While there, they allege they were instructed to turn in receipts for reimbursement for living expenses.

The plaintiffs allege they sustained losses and damages in the amount of $176,581.11.

However, they claim the insurance company failed to pay them in full.

Bryant claims she completed the policy obligation to collect an inventory of everything that was unsalvageable to the best of her ability.

She also alleges she didn’t know what living expenses were covered, so she turned in everything.

The insurer argues that the Bryants misrepresented or concealed material facts and circumstances relating to the insurance claim by failing to submit a properly completed proof of loss and by exaggerating or alleging additional living expenses and personal property damage.

However, Bryant counters that their insurance representative failed to provide her with clear instructions on what was covered and what was not, so she continued to provide every receipt.

“I can’t exaggerate something that I don’t know for sure,” she testified.

Some of those receipts included Rams tickets and haircuts as well as restaurant bills.

So far, the defendant says the Bryants have been paid $77,383.56 before their claim was denied.

During Tuesday morning's cross-examination, Bryant testified that she didn’t intentionally misrepresent any part of the family’s claim.

An exchange between her and Cunningham became heated when he questioned why her family turned in receipts for services received at the local tanning salon.

“I don’t think you’re going to agree with a lot of what I ask you,” he said when she called his questions ridiculous.

Bryant explained that their tanning bed was damaged in the fire. But Cunningham pointed out that the money spent at the tanning salon after the fire was the exact same as what was spent there before the fire.

Switching gears to the family’s bills for eating out, Bryant explained that the family did not have access to a kitchen during their stay at the hotel, so they had to eat out for a majority of their meals.

However, discrepancies between what she claimed for each meal tab and what her bank statement revealed raised questions.

For example, the family ate at Olive Garden and claimed to have given the server a $28 tip, bringing the total to $99.13. However, the bank statement shows that the family left a $20 tip, bringing the total to $91.13.

Bryant alleges she “almost always” left a cash tip in addition to a tip with her debit card, explaining why the bank statement did not match the amount claimed.

“I could have thrown $100 down. You don’t know. You weren’t there,” she said to Cunningham.

Cunningham asked why she wouldn’t put the entire tip on her debit card.

“Because I don’t have to,” she answered.

She added that her daughters worked as servers, so she knows how important cash is to them.

“If you are going to be so nice, why don’t you give them all cash?” Cunningham asked.

“Um, I don’t have a reason not to,” she responded.

She went on to say that Cunningham must not be conscientious of his servers when he goes out to eat.

“You’re the one stiffing the servers giving them less than you claimed,” he said.

“I’m a very good tipper,” she responded.

Further, he questioned why some receipts show a debit card tip and alleged cash tip while other receipts and statements show no debit card tip, implying there was a full cash tip in those instances.

“That’s your explanation, but it’s not the explanation,” she said. “Just because you say it, doesn’t mean it’s true.

“I have a little more class than that,” she said in response to his suggestion that maybe she didn’t tip anything at all when a tip wasn’t present on the bank statement.

“We’ll let the jury decide that,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham went on to show that on 13 separate occasions the family ate out but the bill was less than the bank statement. And eight receipts show no tip at all despite what was claimed.

“Yeah because I only tipped half the time,” she shot back.

“I’m not asking you to be sarcastic. I’m just asking you if that’s what it says,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham moved on to point out what he considered to be questionable receipts from Red Lobster where Lacey Bryant, Jarvia and Nickey Bryant’s daughter, worked at the time of the fire.

He questioned why one Red Lobster receipt looked like a typical customer copy of the receipt with a tip line and a total, but the numerous other receipts were duplicate store copies.

“Were you asking Lacey to get duplicate receipts from other customers?” Cunningham asked.

“That’s ridiculous … please don’t go there,” she said.

She later added that sometimes she forgot to get a receipt and had to get a duplicate copy to turn in to the insurance company.

Cunningham suggested she had been talking to her husband during a bathroom break to come up with that explanation when Bryant called his question “hearsay.”

“You let your lawyer do the objections,” he said.

Ultimately, Brennan only objected once during Bryant’s testimony and only after she glared at him from the stand.

In one instance, a duplicate receipt showed the family arrived at 6:58 a.m. to eat and left at 7:22 p.m. with a total of $102 before the tip. Then the only customer copy receipt shows the family arrived on the exact same day at 7:29 p.m. with a total of $63.24 including the tip.

Bryant alleges that not all five of the family members ate at the same time that day.

“It certainly looks suspicious, doesn’t it?” Cunningham asked.

“Absolutely not, not even close,” she answered.

Further, none of the duplicate copy receipts showed up on her bank statement, Cunningham said. The only receipt that appeared on the bank statement was the one customer copy receipt, and it was for less than she claimed.

Cunningham also pointed out that her daughter’s name had been scribbled out of some of the receipts when it appeared to show that she had been the server.

She explained that she doesn’t know why she would have done that and maybe her pen wasn’t working.

Bryant also crossed out where it shows that a gift card was used.

“Why would you try to cover up that you used a gift card?” Cunningham asked.

“Exactly. Why would I cover that up? Ridiculous,” she responded.

Bryant also turned in receipts from her friend’s trip in Texas because she asked her to purchase some things from IKEA while there. Bryant said some of the receipts for food and novelties were included by mistake and shouldn’t have been claimed. However, some of the receipts had the state scratched out in the store’s address.

“Why would I do that?” Bryant responded when questioned about crossing out “Texas.”

“If I intentionally blocked it out, then I’d of blocked it all out,” referring to every receipt from her friend’s trip.

Additionally, Bryant made claims for cash back that she received on several different occasions. She testified that she just circled the total and assumed the insurance representative would sift through what was and wasn’t covered on each receipt.

Further, Bryant testified that they had their niece and nephew board their dogs while they were staying in the hotel.

They also used Bryant’s sister’s company to clean all of their clothes and linens, which totaled more than $9,500.

The plaintiffs also had Bryant’s brother secure the home after the fire because the firefighters broke the gates and doors.

Further, the family had Bryant’s sister and brother-in-law help them clean and itemize their things following the fire.

Bryant testified that she was unaware that friends and family could not be reimbursed for the help they provided. She alleges the insurance representative later told her that using family and friends was not permitted.

“But I can’t ask them to do it for free,” she said.

“So relying on your family, you don’t see some sort of diabolical scheme?” Brennan asked during the initial questioning.

“No not at all,” Bryant responded.

The case was previously assigned to Circuit Judge Robert LeChien. It was reassigned after the defendants filed a motion for substitute of judge on May 26, 2015.

St. Clair County Circuit Court case number 11-L-597

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Brown & James, P.C.Twentieth Judicial Circuit of Illinois