Woman raps RCMP, insurance firm in fatal blaze

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A B.C. woman whose mentally ill brother has been charged with their mother's death says the RCMP and an insurance firm let her family down.

"There's not one person or institution that I can channel all my hate and anger to," Erica Salemink told Go Public. "This is unbelievably flawed."

Salemink's mother Colette died in a house fire in April 2010. Colette's 23-year-old son Blake, who has schizo-affective disorder, was staying with her at the time. He has been charged with setting the fatal fire while his mother was sleeping.

Salemink said her brother had been discharged from Riverview Hospital, a psychiatric facility, in the fall of 2009. Salemink said her mother reluctantly took him in because she was told there was no bed available for him in supportive housing for the mentally ill.
Calls to RCMP

In the days before the fire, Salemink said her mother made several calls to Coquitlam RCMP, telling police her son was becoming aggressive and asking for help. Salemink said her mother asked police to take him back to hospital, but RCMP said it had no record of him being a patient there.

"She had called the police three times and then the neighbours down the street called once," Salemink recalled. "My mom tried to get help, and no one did anything."

Salemink said police told her mother she would need a restraining order for them to act, and she had planned getting one the day after the fire.

"My mom should have never felt the need to take him back. And the police calls were not properly handled at all," Salemink charged.

Blake Salemink is now in a forensic psychiatric hospital, facing arson and manslaughter charges.

"I am alone with this," Salemink said. "Not only did I lose my mom. I've lost my brother too."

The RCMP told CBC News it couldn't comment on the case, because it was before the courts. But Sgt. Peter Thiessen decided to offer comment Wednesday after Salemink's story was broadcast.

"The decisions were made at the time based on the interaction that [officers] had with this individual and his mother, based on what information was being provided by her," said Thiessen.
Insurance claim denied

To add insult to injury, Salemink said, the family home, which Colette had fully insured, was destroyed, and the insurance coverage has been denied.

"She paid the house off by herself as a single mom," Salemink said. "She made sure she had insurance. How can that be worth nothing?"

The insurance company, Aviva, says it is not honouring the claim because it does not pay when it has evidence that a family member living with an insured person set a fire intentionally.

"Every person I talked to says that doesn't make sense. That's not fair. That can't be right," Salemink said.

A letter from Aviva to Salemink in September of 2010 reads in part, "… there is sufficient evidence to establish that Blake Salemink set the fire. The policy does not insure loss or damage resulting from an intentional or criminal act by any person insured by this policy."

Aviva refused to comment on the case, citing customer confidentiality.

While Colette Salemink was the only person listed on the policy, court rulings in similar cases show companies routinely consider family members living in the household to be "insured" as well.

"He's in a hospital. He hasn't gone to court. Nothing has been proven. So how can you say no — now — when he might not go to court for another year?" Salemink said.

Her lawyer, Scott Stanley, said the burden of proof for an intentional act is much lower for insurance companies than it is for the criminal courts.

"If we were to proceed right now [with a court challenge] the judge would likely have to dismiss the claim," Stanley said.
Law should have helped

What's more upsetting in this case, Stanley said, is that the B.C. government has passed an amendment to the provincial Insurance Act that, if it were in force, would have prevented Aviva from denying Salemink's claim.

The 2009 news release about the new law reads: "the amendments will also protect an innocent co-insured who may otherwise be denied coverage due to the wrongdoing of another person."

In the Salemink case, that means Erica would be paid her share of the claim by her mother's estate, while her brother wouldn't. However, the new law is still not in force because the Finance Department is still finalizing the regulations.

"The thing that makes Canada special — it's not our hockey teams, it's the rule of law, it's the certainty of law, the fairness of law," Stanley said. "Any lawmaking process that creates an uncertain law — which I think this is — it's not much better than a law that's unfair."
'Tragic circumstances'

B.C. Finance Minister Colin Hansen did not make himself available for an interview. His office sent a statement, which reads: "These are truly tragic circumstances, and we are very sorry for their loss.

"Reform of insurance legislation is a complex undertaking …and it has required careful consultation in order to get it right. We are moving as quickly as possible to advance the rights of innocent co-insured British Columbians."

Stanley was not impressed: "Fourteen months since the law passed? That perplexes me."

The statement indicates only Quebec currently has legislation in place to protect innocent parties in such cases.

Stanley said he's seen examples where estranged spouses destroyed property, and the claim by the other spouse was denied. There is also a B.C. case in which a foster child set a house fire and the foster parents were denied coverage.

Because the law has passed, Stanley believes Aviva should honour the Salemink claim now.

"I think it would be very good business for them to pay this claim," he said.

Erica Salemink said she believes she lost her mom because the RCMP didn't do enough to help — and now she stands to lose the family's only asset because of unfair insurance practices and government foot-dragging.

"I do understand people are human. I do understand systems aren't perfect. But really! It's one thing after another, and it's not turning around," she said.