Wisconsin, like most states, considers arson to be a very serious criminal act and imposes stiff penalties on anyone convicted of the crime. An individual facing arson accusations and charges in Wisconsin should consult with and work with a skilled criminal defense attorney who is also familiar with applicable insurance law and claims procedures, to best deal with and understand the charges and potential consequences of a conviction.
Arson to Buildings and Property Damage
Anyone who commits one of the following acts may face felony arson charges under Wisconsin law:
- Uses fire to intentionally damage a building that belongs to another person without that person’s consent, Wis. Stat. § 943.02
- Uses fire to damage the property of another person or entity, Wis. Stat. §943.03
- Uses fire to deliberately damage a building (your own or another’s) with the intent to defraud an insurer, Wis. Stat. § 943.02(1)(b)
- Uses explosives to intentionally damage any of another, Wis. Stat. § 943.02
Arson of a building is a Class C felony that is punishable by up to 40 years in a state prison, up to $100,000 in fines, or both.
Arson to Property Other Than Buildings
If a person employs fire to damage any property other than a building without the owner’s consent, and that property is valued at $100 or more, they may face a Class I felony arson charge. Wis. Stat. § 943.03. Class I felonies are punishable by a state prison term of up to three years and six months, a maximum fine of $10,000, or both.
Arson with Intent to Defraud
A person who uses fire to damage any property other than a building with the intent to defraud that property’s insurer may face Class H felony arson charges. Wis. Stat. § 943.04. Proof that the alleged arsonist collected or attempted to collect on the insurance policy is considered relevant in Wisconsin, but is not essential to establish intent. A Class H felony in Wisconsin is punishable by up to six years in a state prison, a fine of up to $10,000, or both.
Injury and Damages
The problems associated with an arson conviction do not end with the state-imposed fines, supervision, and prison or jail time. In Wisconsin, anyone who suffered personal injury or whose property was damaged due to arson may sue the person convicted of the crime for damages. In these cases, the court may award treble damages (3x) to the alleged victim, plus costs and attorneys’ fees.
Fires and Damage Claims Are Investigated Intensively
Statistics show that while the intentional setting of fires, arson for profit, insurance fraud and unexplained causes under investigation may account for 5% of all fire or explosion incidents, intentional causation is much more significant where death occurs. According to FEMA and the U.S. Fire Administration, the leading causes of residential building fire deaths for 2017, are as follows: 1) Unintentional, careless: 435 deaths; 2) Intentional: 370 deaths; and 3) Causes under investigation: 355 deaths.
A fire loss claim is treated significantly different than other insurance claims, e.g., an auto accident. The presumption of the insurance investigator is not innocence. These claims are investigated intensively from the get-go, and fire insurance claims agents and investigators work in tandem with law enforcement, fire departments, the State Fire Marshal, and sometimes BATF.
In addition to sworn statements and proofs of loss from the insured, fire insurers sometimes demand that the insured participate in an Examination Under Oath (EUO). An EUO is conducted to obtain evidence when an insurance company suspects the insured of fraud or has otherwise contributed to the loss. An insurance policyholder has typically agreed to cooperate with the insurer and undergo an EUO, within the fine print of the fire insurance policy. Wisconsin courts have held that if an insured does not so cooperate, coverage may be denied.
Contact a Milwaukee, WI Arson Defense Lawyer
Arson accusations are serious, and have potentially severe financial and legal implications, in addition to denial of fire insurance claims. However, these types of cases are often not clear cut, and investigators sometimes jump the gun in concluding that arson occurred. Forensic examinations beyond what local authorities or the State Fire Marshal conduct may need to be done. If you or someone you know is facing arson accusations, charges, or is requested to undergo an Examination Under Oath or risk denial of a fire claim by an insurer, you need experienced legal representation. Do not go it alone. At Gimbel, Reilly, Guerin & Brown, LLP, our experienced attorneys can help you determine the best approach and defense strategy, appropriate experts, etc., and we will work to help you try to achieve a positive outcome to your case. Contact our Milwaukee criminal defense attorneys at 414-271-1440.