Owner of deliberately burned Manitoba store ordered to repay insurance company

WINNIPEG — A judge has ruled a fire that destroyed a hardware store in the western Manitoba town of Neepawa more than four years ago was deliberately set.

The decision follows a lawsuit filed by the owner of the Home Hardware outlet against his insurance company for not providing coverage.

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The owner, Patrick Guilbert of Guilbert Enterprises, has been ordered to repay Economical Insurance tens of thousands of dollars.

The judge's ruling states that the insurer based in Waterloo, Ont., denied a claim for $3 million.

Manitoba's Office of the Fire Commissioner said the February 2015 blaze started in the attic, but it could not determine the exact cause.

The ruling has no effect on a separate police investigation, now closed, in which the RCMP did not lay charges.

The fire destroyed four apartments above the store but no one was injured.

Court of Queen's Bench Justice David Kroft wrote in his March 21 ruling that "Taking all the evidence into account ... Economical has proved, on a balance of probabilities, Guilbert started the fire — a clear breach of the plaintiff's contractual and statutory obligations to Economical."

Kroft accepted evidence given by engineer Norbert Karl Becker, who was called by Economical to testify about the cause and origin of the fire. The judge noted that Becker found that the timing, area of origin and rapid spread of the fire were consistent with an incendiary blaze.

Kroft said Guilbert conceded financial motive at trial because the business was failing.

He also ruled there was opportunity for Guilbert to start the fire, based on witness testimony from former employees.

"On the day of the fire, Guilbert removed personal items from the building. Guilbert was alone in the building from 6:05 p.m. to 6:09 p.m.," he wrote.

Kroft allowed a counterclaim filed by Economical and ordered Guilbert to pay the insurance company nearly $650,000. The money covers the amount Economical paid under the policy to two credit unions for mortgages taken out by Guilbert Enterprises and the cleanup costs associated with the fire.

His decision notes a trial judge is not precluded from reaching a different conclusion than investigators about the cause of a fire.

Guilbert has not responded to a CTV News request for comment, while his lawyer said it would be inappropriate to comment on the ruling. (CTV Winnipeg)

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