North Dakota Jury Awards Couple More than $2 Million over Bad Faith Claim

April 10, 2008

A federal jury has awarded the mayor of a small North Dakota town more than $2 million in a lawsuit over an insurance company’s failure to pay a claim after a fire.

Timothy and Sylvia Moore sued American Family Insurance after fire destroyed a vacant duplex they owned in Walsh County, saying the insurance company had wrongly blamed them. The insurance policy on the duplex was for $50,000.

The jury this week awarded the Moores $1.15 million for bad faith on the part of the insurance company in failing to settle the claim as well as $1.15 million in punitive damages and more than $48,000 for breach of contract.

“We would have settled it for way less,” said Ward Johnson, a lawyer for the Moores, who were not immediately available for comment.

Michael Morley, a lawyer for the Wisconsin-based insurance company, did not return a phone message Tuesday seeking comment.

Timothy Moore is the mayor of Mountain, a town of about 130 people in Pembina County known for its Icelandic heritage.

The Moores contended the fire was not intentionally set and that the insurance company acted in bad faith by failing to pay the claim. Timothy Moore was never charged in the case, Johnson said.

“It was never about the money. He bought the place for a buck,” Johnson said. “But the insurance company tried to ruin him. They accused him of arson without a lick of evidence and turned him over to the BCI.”

The state Bureau of Criminal Investigation, along with the fire marshal’s office, investigated.

The trial ended earlier this week after eight days. At one point during deliberations, jurors told U.S. District Judge Rodney Webb they could not agree on punitive damages. Webb told them to continue deliberating.

“This is very rare, and I’m glad it is,” Johnson said of the huge award. “Our law firm represents several large insurance companies. In almost all cases, people are dealt with fairly and justly.

“For whatever reason, they (the insurance company) got the wrong idea, this time,” he said.

Timothy Moore, a custom farmer, had planned to move the house near the Cavalier Air Force Station and rent it to people working at the radar base, Johnson said.

“The Moores have been married for 31 years. They have five kids. They are the salt of the earth,” Johnson said. “This was justice being served.”

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