Goats, arson and gag orders
Tom Ivers has so far thrashed Allstate in court. Now the insurance company wants him to shut up.
It may not be the greatest show on Earth, but the legal battle of Thomas J. Ivers v. Allstate Insurance Company certainly has the makings of a three-ring circus. The story comes complete with accusations of arson and jury tampering, and with a court order prohibiting one local man from saying nasty things about his insurance company.
It all started with some frolicking goats.
According to an insurance claim filed by Thomas Ivers in 1997, these bad goats broke into Ivers’ basement billiards room in Shingle Springs. In the midst of their mischief, he claimed, his goats must have knocked over his kerosene heater, causing the room to burst into flames. The fire department hurried down the rural dirt road leading to Ivers’ house, but by the time it squelched the flames, the fire had completely consumed his 5,500-square-foot home.
Ivers made a $900,000 claim to Allstate Insurance, his insurance company, expecting to rebuild what he called his dream home—that is, until Allstate rejected his claim, citing arson, instead of goats, as the cause of the fire. According to a company investigator and a fire marshal, someone had poured kerosene in other parts of the home, causing the fire to spread.
Outraged, Ivers embarked on what became an eight-year battle against Allstate Insurance. Simultaneously, Ivers launched an anti-Allstate crusade, complete with hats, pens, stickers and other campaign props bearing the word “Allstate,” circled and with a slash through the name, and “Eradicate its evil presence” embossed underneath.
These antics aside, Ivers’ fight came to a partial close on August 26 last year when a South Lake Tahoe jury awarded Ivers $676,000. (South Lake Tahoe was the closest town with available courtrooms at the time.) The jury deadlocked, however, on the question of whether Allstate had acted in “bad faith,” which could have entitled Ivers to steep damages against the company.
Kenneth Friedman, one of Ivers’ current attorneys, says he believes the jury decided in their favor because of a lack of arson evidence or a clear motive. Friedman points at the 10 years Ivers spent remodeling and landscaping his home as evidence of his client’s innocence. Ivers would not comment for this story, on his attorney’s advice.
On February 27, he and Allstate will begin to duke it out again over the bad-faith portion of the lawsuit, which hung the South Lake Tahoe jury in August. Allstate has a lot to lose in the next couple of months. A jury now must decide whether Allstate acted fairly and quickly to resolve Ivers’ claim. If a jury finds Allstate acted in bad faith, meaning Allstate did not have enough reason to believe Ivers set his own home on fire, the decision could mean millions of dollars in punitive damages out of Allstate’s pocket, a far cry from the $900,000 Ivers asked for originally.
Those who have been following the matter closely since its 1998 inception wonder whether the second trial will take on the lively tone characteristic of the first trial.
After all, Allstate’s lawyers have done the best they can to sap some of its color. Last month, Allstate’s attorneys tried to move the trial out of El Dorado County and into Sacramento, an attempt to escape the media and public who have been less than favorable to them. Since the end of the trial in August, Allstate attorneys contend, Ivers has been sending packets of “anti-Allstate propaganda” to former jurors, along with a note asking them to “pass it on to a friend or neighbor when you are through.”
In its request for a change of venue, the company characterized Ivers’ actions as a “blatant attempt to tamper with the Tahoe jury pool and turn prospective jurors against defendant Allstate.”
Unfortunately for Allstate, a judge denied its motion for a change of venue, and the matter will be tried in Cameron Park instead.
And then there’s the restraining order—or the stipulated restraining order (meaning both sides agreed to the terms), as Allstate spokesman Rich Halberg likes to point out. Those terms include barring Ivers from “distributing any written materials to anyone … containing remarks of any kind about Allstate, including pens, hats, clothing, stickers, or other materials,” among other things. The order also prohibits Ivers from “initiating any contact with any journalist or newspaper regarding his claims, opinions and/or experience with Allstate.” A packet from Ivers arrived at SN&R offices shortly before the restraining order was signed.
If Ivers pulls off another win against Allstate, he won’t be rebuilding his house in Shingle Springs. “He had to sell it earlier last year after eight years of keeping the dream alive,” Friedman said.