State Farm: Flood burned down store

Shop owner says he didn't have money to prove company is wrong

Posted: Tuesday, February 08, 2000

Joe and Myrna Flood have settled with State Farm Fire and Casualty nearly three years after an apparent arson fire burned through the downtown Valley Video store they owned.

After a lengthy legal fight, the civil lawsuit filed by the Floods was dismissed from Juneau Superior Court, with Joe Flood saying the insurance company was too rich and powerful to fight, and State Farm saying evidence shows Flood started the fire.

The Floods had sued to recover an undetermined amount of damages stemming from the April 1997 fire that damaged the building and many of the videotapes.

The agreement between the parties has each side paying its own attorney fees. The Floods agreed to pay for part of the nearly $170,000 the insurance company paid to Key Bank, which held the mortgage on the store's building.

The insurance payment to the bank was effectively a partial payment of the Floods' claim, said Paul Dillon, the Floods' attorney.

The Floods are effectively reimbursing the insurance company for $25,000 of that payment, said Michael Lessmeier, State Farm's attorney.

``We believe he agreed to do that because of the underlying facts. He would probably argue against that,'' Lessmeier said.

The Floods' suit said State Farm failed to live up to the terms of their nearly $700,000 insurance policy.

State Farm resisted, said Lessmeier, because the company is convinced the fire was arson. In court documents, State Farm's lawyers named Joe Flood as the arsonist. The court concluded that State Farm had reason not to pay.

``The facts show that Joe Flood intentionally set fire to the Valley Video building . . .,'' wrote Lessmeier in a court document.

As far as the company is concerned, ``the evidence speaks for itself,'' he said.

That accusation is outrageous, Flood said. The only reason the suit was dropped was because the Floods don't have the money to keep fighting.

``How come the Juneau police haven't filed charges and haven't arrested me?'' Flood said Monday from his Bend, Ore., home. ``State Farm is lying to you. We had no choice. To continue to fight would be bankruptcy. We could not continue the fight.''

Joe Flood has consistently denied causing the fire - in response to questions from reporters, on Juneau radio and in testimony under oath. He and his wife spent thousands of dollars to pay for polygraph tests, he said, the results of which State Farm blocked from court. The Floods passed, he said.

State Farm's Lessmeier said the ``objective facts'' speak for themselves.

A witness told police he saw a person matching Joe Flood's description go out to a truck after the store's last two workers left on the night of the fire, according to court records Lessmeier filed. Shortly thereafter, the witness saw the person re-enter the store, then return to the truck and leave.

All the doors were locked when firefighters arrived, said Lessmeier, and no person other than Joe Flood had motive and opportunity to start the fire.

Minutes after the truck left the store, fire engines were on the way as a blaze burned in a back office and smoke filled the two-story structure.

Dillon said all of the information, and how that information fits into what happened, is in dispute.

Flood said it was irrelevant that he left the building last. ``I owned the place,'' said a clearly frustrated Flood.

After the fire, officials found gasoline residue on a 20-ounce plastic bottle that had a brown paper bag stuck into it like a wick. That, not the spontaneous combustion of staining rags initially reported as the probable cause by police, was the fire's cause, Lessmeier said.

In deposition, both Juneau's fire marshal at the time, Curtis Jones, and the Juneau police officer investigating the fire, Sgt. Jerry Nankervis, said they believed Flood started the blaze.

The motive, Lessmeier said, was twofold from State Farm's perspective. The Floods wanted to leave Juneau, and business at the video store was down.

``We believe that the business had declined significantly in value, and that sales were down,'' he said.

But Flood said business was fine.

Robert Lowe, an investigator working for the Floods, initially concluded that ``either spite or pyromania'' had been the motive for the fire with the fire starting when a flaming match - or something similar - was thrown through a slot into a video return box. That box was close to where police determined the fire started.

The investigator said items such as a bottle of urine, indicating someone was angry at the business, were put into the return box in the days before the fire.

The state never filed charges. Prosecutors decided Juneau police hadn't put together a good enough case to pursue Joe Flood, said Eric Johnson, an assistant attorney general.

Flood represented Anchorage as a Democrat in the state House for one term - covering 1983 and 1984. He said Monday that he still has a stake in Juneau. The Floods, he said, continue to own a tanning salon in town, and plan to open up additional businesses here in the future, he said.

Blockbuster Video now operates out of the former Valley Video location at the intersection of 12th Street and Glacier Avenue.

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