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Judges affirm attorney fees from State Farm’s ‘groundless’ lawsuit

April 9, 2014

A car dealership accused of playing a role in a car fire that destroyed four cars and part of a man’s home is entitled to the more than $12,000 in attorney fees awarded to it after State Farm’s negligence lawsuit was dismissed. The Indiana Court of Appeals noted the insurer’s refusal to dismiss the claim despite knowing the dealership was not at fault for the fire.

Kenneth Burkhart, insured through State Farm Fire & Casualty Co., filed a claim with State Farm after his 2006 GMC truck caught fire while parked in his garage. The fire engulfed the garage, the truck and three other cars, and a portion of his house. Burkhart said the last people to enter the engine compartment were employees of H.H. Niswander. The dealership had performed an oil change on his truck about a week before the fire.

State Farm instituted an investigation and Timothy Herndon and Walter Herndon, of Herndon & Associates, determined the fire was a result of oil leaking from the engine and into the ignition. It was classified as an accidental fire. The report was concluded ten months before State Farm filed its complaint.

During a deposition of State Farm’s experts, Timothy Herndon explained that he believed the oil change had nothing to do with the fire and it was due to a manufacturing defect. State Farm refused to dismiss the case. The dealership filed a motion to dismiss and sought sanctions and fees. The trial court dismissed it with prejudice and ordered State Farm to pay $12,503.39 in attorney fees incurred by H.H. Niswander, noting that State Farm knew prior to filing the suit that the dealership did not cause the fire.

In State Farm Fire & Casualty Company a/s/o Kenneth Burkhart v. H.H. Niswander, 35A02-1307-CT-638, State Farm appealed the order to pay attorney fees. But the Court of Appeals affirmed, finding State Farm’s lawsuit was groundless.

“Based on our standard of review, we cannot find with a definite and firm conviction that the trial court made a mistake in determining that State Farm pursued the lawsuit against H.H. Niswander without evidence that H.H. Niswander was negligent or caused the fire,” Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote.
 

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