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State v. Mitchell

Supreme Court of Tennessee, Knoxville

December 20, 2019

STATE OF TENNESSEE
v.
REUBEN EUGENE MITCHELL

          Session September 5, 2019

          Appeal by Permission from the Court of Criminal Appeals Criminal Court for Knox County No. 102034 Steven W. Sword, Judge

         The defendant, Reuben Eugene Mitchell, was convicted of one count of arson and one count of presenting a false or fraudulent insurance claim. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the defendant's arson conviction but reversed his conviction for presenting a false or fraudulent insurance claim. We granted the State's application to appeal to address whether the proof at trial was sufficient to support the defendant's conviction for presenting a false or fraudulent insurance claim. Our review leads us to conclude that the evidence was sufficient. Accordingly, we reverse in part the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals and reinstate the defendant's conviction for presenting a false or fraudulent insurance claim.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 11 Appeal by Permission; Judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals Affirmed in Part, Reversed in Part; Judgments of the Trial Court Affirmed

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Andrée S. Blumstein, Solicitor General; Katherine C. Redding, Assistant Attorney General; Randall E. Nichols, District Attorney General; and William C. Bright and Andrea Kline, Assistant District Attorneys General, for the appellant, the State of Tennessee.

          Joshua D. Hedrick, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Reuben Eugene Mitchell.

          Roger A. Page, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Jeffrey S. Bivins, C.J., and Cornelia A. Clark, Sharon G. Lee, and Holly Kirby, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          ROGER A. PAGE, JUSTICE.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         After a fire caused extensive damage to his house, the defendant was charged with one count of arson[1] and one count of presenting a false or fraudulent insurance claim.[2]At the ensuing jury trial, the following evidence was adduced.

         On November 30, 2011, the defendant applied to Allstate Property and Casualty Insurance Company ("Allstate") for a homeowner's insurance policy. On December 1, 2011, Allstate issued the homeowner's policy, number 9 63 861797, naming the defendant as the insured and the defendant's residence as the insured dwelling ("the Policy"). A copy of the Policy, which covered the house, "other structures," personal property, and "additional living expense," was admitted into evidence. As to the dwelling, the Policy covered "sudden and accidental direct physical loss." It also provided liability protection.

         In the portion titled "Section I Conditions," beginning on page 16, the Policy contains multiple provisions directing what the insured "Must Do After A Loss." One of the requirements is to "immediately give" Allstate or its agent "notice." Also required, "within 60 days after the loss," is a "signed, sworn proof of the loss" including "the actual cash value and amount of loss for each item damaged, destroyed or stolen." Nowhere in the criteria for "What You Must Do After A Loss" is the insured required to "file" a "claim" for a loss resulting from fire damage.

         On the evening of December 5, 2011, just a few days after the Policy was issued, a fire caused extensive damage to the living room area of the defendant's residence. The defendant was not at home, and neighbors called the fire department. Although the fire had been extinguished, the defendant called the fire department after he arrived home the morning after the fire. The defendant, who testified at trial, also called Allstate and told Allstate that there had been a house fire. He acknowledged that he called Allstate "to report the loss" and that his call was to "start the process to file a claim." However, the defendant also testified that he did not fill out any claim forms for Allstate, and he denied telling anyone at Allstate that he wanted to be paid for a property loss or that he wanted Allstate to make repairs. He stated that he did not fill out a list of property that he lost and wanted replaced but added that an Allstate representative did so.

         After reporting the fire, the defendant met with two Allstate representatives, Mr. David Gray and Ms. Heather Stover. According to Mr. Gray, a "large loss adjuster," the defendant told Mr. Gray that "he had been home, and he had had a fire going in the fireplace and had to leave the home and shortly after he left, the fire took place in the home."

         On December 9, 2011, Ms. Stover, a "large loss contents adjuster," presented the defendant with a document titled "Advance Payment Agreement" and a check for $1, 000. The Advance Payment Agreement, signed by the defendant on December 9, 2011, was admitted into evidence. This document references "Claim No.: 0228336426" and "Policy No.: 000963861797." It also lists the defendant as the "Policyholder(s)," the defendant's residence as the "Address of Insured Property," and "[f]ire" as the "Type of Damage." The Advance Payment Agreement further provides as follows:

In consideration of the advance payment described below, the policyholder(s) ("you") and Allstate ("we") agree as follows:
Before any benefit can be paid under this policy, you have an obligation to fully comply with all policy requirements in submitting the claim. We have an obligation to investigate and determine if the policy is valid, if the claim is valid and the extent of coverage that may be applicable to the loss, if any. We will continue to investigate the claim. If there are requirements in the policy which you have not yet completed, you need to comply with those requirements.
In the meantime, in good faith and to prevent any undue hardship which this loss may cause you, we advance $1, 000.00 on the loss under ...

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