Court rules for insurer in £20,000 dispute

A Devon man who walked away and “allowed his flat to burn” without calling the fire brigade will go without a penny from Direct Line Group following a judge’s ruling.

By his own account, Michael Swanston had consumed seven pints of Guinness and eight Jack Daniels before the fire broke out at his flat in Cullompton high street.

His possessions and the clothes collection of his fashionista daughter, Laura, were destroyed in the January 2010 blaze at split-level flat 19(a).

Swanston, who worked at the dry cleaners underneath the flat, had taken out an insurance policy with DLG brand Churchill two months before.

But, when he made a claim for more than £20,000, the insurance company refused to pay up – accusing him of starting the fire himself.

Judge Robin Bedford rejected that accusation after a five-day county court hearing in December last year.

But he nevertheless dubbed Swanston an “evasive and inaccurate” witness and ruled that Churchill did not have to pay.

Judge Bedford said that Swanston had left the flat only about four-and-a-half minutes before a passerby saw the blaze.

Although he “appeared shocked” afterwards, the judge said Swanston had “the ability to pull the wool over the eyes of others”.

Swanston, he ruled, “must have been aware” that there was a fire before he walked out of the flat.

However, he had “chosen to allow the place to burn”.

Swanston’s barrister, Robert Leonard, today mounted a fierce attack on the judge’s decision at London’s Appeal Court.

He argued that Judge Bedford had given inadequate reasons for his conclusion and had got both the facts and the law wrong.

However, Lord Justice Bean said Swanston’s evidence had been “comprehensively disbelieved” by Judge Bedford.

He had been “entitled to place no reliance on anything Swanston said” unless it was backed up by corroborating evidence.

It was, the appeal judge added, “bizarre and contrary to common sense” to suggest that Churchill was obliged to pay out.

The insurance company was entitled to treat the policy as void because of Swanston’s failure to take reasonable care to protect his own property.

Swanston was refused permission to appeal against Judge Bedford’s decision.