A Donegal publican has withdrawn his action against his insurer Aviva over its failure to pay out €3 million under an insurance policy for his premises, destroyed by fire almost 10 years ago.
Seamus McLaughlin is now facing a legal costs bill estimated at more than €1 million after Mr Justice Seamus Noonan awarded costs of the 21-day case against him in favour of Aviva.
Aviva Insurance Europe plc had refused to indemnify Mr McLaughlin on grounds including its belief he was involved in setting fire to the pub in an attempt to obtain benefit under the policy.
Mr McLaughlin had a previous fire claim against the company.
The case arose from a fire at Mr McLaughlin's Waterfront Bar and restaurant, James Street, Moville, on February 1st, 2009. A Garda file was sent to the DPP in May 2010 following an investigation into the fire and the DPP later directed there should be no prosecution.
The hearing of Mr McLaughlin’s civil case against Aviva began last November, was adjourned a number of times and ultimately ran over four weeks before being withdrawn on Friday.
Aviva previously got court orders for possession of digital video recorders (DVRs) recovered from the pub following the fire.
During the hearing, Mr Justice Noonan was shown footage of scenes at the premises on the night of the fire. It company relied on video material showing Mr McLaughlin and his brother Kevin entering the premises at 3.07am on the morning of the fire and, a minute after they left, the fire started.
Lawyers for Mr McLaughlin earlier this week argued the video evidence was inadmissible for reasons including concerning the process in which the material was retrieved but the judge, in a ruling on Thursday, dismissed those arguments.
The footage was “a central plank” of Aviva’s case “which is that the plaintiff was himself responsible for setting the fire”, the judge said. He was satisfied the footage before the court represented a true and accurate facsimile of the footage contained in the original DVR hard drives recovered from the scene. It was too late for Mr McLaughlin’s side to seek now to exclude the evidence, he added.
After that ruling, Mr McLaughlin began his direct evidence. He said he and his brother went to the pub on the morning of February 1st, 2009, to check for a leak and then went home. At about 4.30am, he got a call from a taxi driver he knew telling him to get up to the bar because the fire brigade was there.
He said he was completely shocked by the fire because the bar “was flying”. Because of the blaze, all his staff were gone overnight, he said. “We did not know where or what way to turn.”
In interviews with experts for the insurance company afterwards, he felt he was being blamed and was therefore wary when dealing with them. Because he had had a previous fire claim, “I was very wary about where it was going”, he said.
On Friday, when Mr McLaughlin was due to continue his evidence, his counsel Jonathan Kilfeather SC said the case was being withdrawn.
David Nolan SC, for Aviva, said he wanted to make clear the case had not been settled and was rather being withdrawn by Mr McLaughlin. When Mr Nolan applied for Aviva’s costs, Mr Kilfeather said he could not resist that application.
After the withdrawal, John Sunderland, Aviva's property claims manager for the Republic of Ireland, said it was "very satisfied" with the outcome of the case.
Aviva “is committed to defending this type of claim”, its approach was “vindicated” by the fact the case was withdrawn “albeit very late in the proceedings” and it had secured an order for its costs, he said.