Despite the notoriety of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, associating with them isn’t risky enough to justify not honouring an insurance payout on a biker clubhouse destroyed in an arson attack, a judge has ruled.
The unusual court case followed a fire that destroyed the clubhouse of the Heretics Motorcycle Club in Estevan, Sask.
The bikers’ clubhouse was in a leased commercial building at the corner of Souris Avenue and Albert Street, on a main thoroughfare of Estevan, a city of 12,000 people that is 15 kilometres north of the U.S. border and 200 kilometres southeast of Regina.
Until it was destroyed by fire, it was distinctive only for the club’s large logo in the main window facing the street.
It was the three-piece style of biker logos, which are also used in the patches worn by members of so-called outlaw motorcycle clubs: the club’s name is in a semi-circle at the top, the club’s demon-themed logo in the middle, and its geographic location underneath in a mirroring semi-circle.
Beside the clubhouse in the same building was a tattoo parlour. Both places were leased in the name of Chris Murphy, court heard.
The bikers moved in about 2012 when their club was called the Reapers Riders. Over the years, their presence in the building expanded to include some work bays at the rear, where motorcycles were stored and worked on.
At some point, members of the Riders buried their patches and became a chapter of the Heretics MC.
On April 13, 2016, the building was destroyed by fire. The cause was arson, but by who is not known. Court heard that neither the owners of the building, Ryan and Tina Smith, nor members of the Heretics or the operator of the tattoo parlour were implicated in setting it.
The building’s owners filed a claim with their insurance company, Wynward Insurance Group.
During an investigation, a claims adjuster for Wynward found information online linking the Heretics to the Hells Angels, court heard. Five weeks after the fire, the insurance claim was denied.
The insurance firm told the owners there was an undeclared “material change in the risk” after the policy was bought, namely, it being occupied by a motorcycle club that had links with the Hells Angels.
The owners challenged the denial in court.
Estimating risk is one way an insurance company assesses how much financial exposure it faces in offering to insure a premise or person.
In this case, the insurer alleged that a tenant that was an “outlaw motorcycle gang,” which is “a subsidiary of, or an affiliated gang with the notorious Hells Angels Motorcycle Club” posed a greater risk to the building. The insurance company seemed fine with the Reapers Riders as tenants, but the Heretics were beyond the pale.
“The defendant is asserting the presence of this particular motorcycle club, due to its alleged connections to the Hells Angels alleged criminality and its alleged general unsavoury character, raised their presence in the premises to that of a material change in risk,” Judge Michael T. Megaw of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Saskatchewan, wrote in a verdict released Feb. 25.
The judge said he wasn’t impressed by the insurance company’s research. They filed little in the way of evidence, only an internet post from Gangsters Out Blog.
Testimony in the case by a constable with the Estevan Police Service, who has investigated the Heretics, wasn’t much better, the judge said.
The officer testified police officers monitoring club events saw members of the Hells Angels from Regina and Winnipeg present on several occasions. Outside the building at one event a stall was set up selling Hells Angels support gear, such as T-shirts and hats.
The judge said all sorts of people were also at these public events and police had no evidence the Heretics authorized the stall. Nor did the officer provide evidence of criminal activity by either the Hells Angels or the Heretics, other than he once stopped a man wearing a Heretics jacket who had a large blade with him.
“The court is certainly aware of the name Hells Angels. However, is that enough to then conclude their presence, in any context, is sufficient to constitute a material change in risk? There is no evidence, aside from the presence of perhaps five or six individuals, to allow for a conclusion the two clubs were affiliated or acting in association,” Megaw wrote.
“Thus, even if the court could conclude the Hells Angels are so notorious as to need no further proof, the lack of connection does not permit the Heretics Motorcycle Club to be tarred with that same brush.
“While we may all ultimately be judged according to the friends we keep, presence on perhaps three occasions spread out during the year, in very limited numbers, with no evidence of interaction, does not permit that judging to occur here.”
Megaw ordered Wynward pay the Smiths the $640,000 maximum allowed on their policy, plus $35,400 in lost rental income and $18,290 for the site cleanup after the fire. He denied a claim for $100,000 in punitive damages.
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