After Arson, Attorneys Deal With Singed Wills, Soggy Paperwork
William M. Broneill will never forget the call he got on July 11, 2012 at 4 a.m. It was the Manchester police, telling him that his law office was on fire. "I ran right over, I was in a state of shock," he said. "The firemen were knocking down hotspots and there were flames visible, I just stood there, mesmerized."
The fire inside the three-story colonial on East Center Street had been ignited by a Manchester man, who broke in with two others in an apparent burglary and set the fire to destroy any evidence. Although nothing was stolen from Broneill's office, the damage totaled over $300,000. Some things that were lost were irreplaceable.
"There was all kinds of non-business related personal property in there that was destroyed," he said. "There was a personal library we didn't have room for at home, old military records of mine, countless photographs. Items that had belonged to my wife's parents, and items of my parents'."
It was never made clear why Dayshaun Collins, Eric Gorman, and a juvenile decided to break into the office. "At first, we thought maybe it was someone who was unhappy with us, but that doesn't appear to be the case," said Broneill's son, William R. Broneill, who runs his own, separate solo law practice in his father's office.
Gorman, 20, recently pleaded guilty to burglary and criminal mischief for his role in the crime, but denied any involvement in the fire. He was sentenced to four years in prison and six years' special parole. Collins, 20, pleaded no contest to conspiracy to commit arson, and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Located on the first floor of former private house which the older Broneill had purchased to run his general practice in 1976, the office also held 36 years worth of business records. When Broneill was allowed to walk into his office the day after the fire, he found windows knocked out and walls charred. Stacks of files, including copies of wills and real estate documents he or his son had handled for clients, had been singed by flames or soaked with water.
For several weeks, Broneill, 73, spent part of the day practicing law in a borrowed office nearby, and part of the day, he said, "sorting through files and shredding paperwork."
The older Broneill said he had to make a decision. He had been scaling down his own practice and preparing for retirement, but he considered the building that he bought after working for another firm to be part of his legacy. Not long after the smoke had cleared, he decided to repair the building.
"At my age, I didn't want to get involved in leases," he said. "It would have been a good opportunity to turn the key and say, 'I'm done,' but I didn't want to go out that way. And besides, the building, my office building, in my opinion, is one of the nicest buildings on East Center Street and I didn't want it torn down. It made sense from that standpoint to rebuild and move back in."
The younger Broneill, 37, whose practice includes real estate, consumer bankruptcy, wills and estate law and business formation, said he and his father have separate businesses, with their own malpractice insurance and business insurance coverage. That arrangement paid off. Although the insurance for the building did not cover all of the repair costs, the younger Broneill said, each of the general business liability policies covered some of the cleanup costs.
With those policies, father and son each recovered some money for interruptions to their business, although they never stopped working for long. "Through this process of rebuilding, I really learned how important it is to have general liability insurance," the younger Broneill said.
The father and son wanted to rebuild the office to be as much as possible as it was before. They did make some improvements, including adding central air conditioning. "We had quite a bit of discussion about that," the younger Broneill said. "Because we learned that the burglars had gained entry by removing a window air-conditioning unit, we didn't want to allow that to happen again."
They were also required, because of changes in the building code, to provide handicap-accessible doors and a bathroom. "The only difference, physically, is that we added a larger bathroom, wider doors and ramp," the elder Broneill said. In July, they were able to move back into the office, which is "a minute" away from the older Broneill's house.
The office, he said the office is a second home. "I'm happy to be back home," Broneill said. "It's where I've been since 1976."