The Cigar Arsonist - an Urban Legend

Up in Flames

High Angle View Of Cigars On Table
Riccardo Livorni / EyeEm / Getty Images

Netlore Archive: North Carolina man takes out fire insurance on a pricey stash of rare cigars; he smokes them and files claim, according to an urban legend circulating since the 1960s. Who do you think prevailed in court?

Assessment of the Cigar Arsonist Story

This story is decades old and likely originated as a joke. A much briefer version appeared in a 1965 toastmaster's manual and was apparently the direct inspiration of the earliest Internet variant, posted in a Usenet discussion in February 1996:

A cigar smoker bought several hundred expensive stogies and had them insured against fire. After he'd smoked them all, he filed a claim, pointing out that the cigars had been destroyed by fire. The company refused to pay, and the man sued. A judge ruled that because the insurance company had agreed to insure against fire, it was legally responsible. The company paid the claim and and when the man accepted the money, the company had him arrested for arson.

Here's the same tale set in North Carolina in this Usenet version dated February 1997:

Something heard on the radio:
A North Carolina man, having bought several expensive cigars, insured them against... get this... fire. After he had smoked them, he then decided that he had a claim against the insurance company and filed. The insurance company refused to pay, citing the obvious reason that the man had consumed the cigar normally. The man sued. The judge stated that since the company had insured the cigars against fire, they were obligated to pay. After the man accepted payment for his claim, the company then had him arrested for... arson.

As the story traveled via email, it grew longer and more detailed, and by 1997 the latter-day version set in Charlotte, NC had become standard. David Boraks, a reporter for the Charlotte Observer, tried vainly to authenticate it. "Somewhat sheepishly," he wrote, "I've tried to verify the cigar story. But searches of court records and newspaper files fail to turn up a single case or N.C. news article matching the incident." Not that anyone should be surprised.

New Version of Cigar Burning Story

A new variant claiming the scheming cigar aficionado was himself a lawyer began circulating in mid-2002 Here's an email contributed anonymously in 1997:

FW: Subject: Our wonderful legal system
A Charlotte, North Carolina man, having purchased a case of rare, very expensive cigars, insured them against (get this) fire! Within a month, having smoked his entire stockpile of fabulous cigars, and having yet to make a single premium payment on the policy, the man filed a claim against the insurance company.
In his claim, the man stated that he had lost the cigars "in a series of small fires." The insurance company refused to pay, citing the obvious reason that the man had consumed the cigars in a normal fashion. The man sued — and won! In delivering his ruling, the judge stated that since the man held a policy from the company in which it had warranted that the cigars were insurable and also guaranteed that the cigars would be insured against fire, without defining what it considered to be unacceptable fire, it was obligated to compensate the insured for his loss.
Rather than endure a lengthy and costly appeal process, the insurance company grudgingly accepted the judge's ruling and paid the man $15,000 for the rare cigars he lost in the fires. After the man cashed his check, however, the insurance company had him arrested on 24 counts of arson. With his own insurance claim and testimony from the previous case being used as evidence against him, the man was convicted of intentionally burning the rare cigars and sentenced to 24 consecutive one-year terms.
So don't piss off your insurance company!

Sources and further reading

Internet Speeds Spread of Charlotte Cigar Myth
Charlotte Observer, December 30, 1997

Fantastic Tales
Guardian (UK), October 15, 2002