When 84-year-old John Pyron of Fort Worth got a letter informing him that his girlfriend was suing him for $152,926, he couldn’t believe it. And neither could she.
“I guess I was just stunned,” Pyron remembered thinking. “I was in shock. I said, 'My God, what's going on?'"
His companion, Cecilla Ellison, 70, was with him when the letter arrived.
“I thought, 'Am I dreaming? I know I didn't do that. Who's signing my name?’" Ellison said.
The saga started on Aug. 18, 2012, when Pyron was at a small dinner party at Ellison’s house and started to cook some shrimp in a deep fryer.
"(I) just put water in it and lit the fire,” Pyron said.
He went inside to get the shrimp and within a few minutes realized the fryer and the house were ablaze.
"What do you do?” he asked. “You do the best you can. You try to put it out, but it didn't work."
The house was destroyed.
Ellison filed a claim with her insurance company State Farm, which paid to repair the damage and even put her up in a temporary rental house.
“Everything was fine,” she said.
After several months of repairs, she moved back into her home.
Then, almost a year after the fire, a surprise arrived in the mail.
It was a lawsuit, styled Cecilla Ellison versus John Pyron. The paperwork said she was demanding $152,926 for the damage, plus interest.
The couple had thought the saga was over.
The lawsuit, in fact, was filed by State Farm using Ellison’s name.
It's part of a legal process called "subrogation" that insurers often use to seek reimbursement when they claim someone else should pay.
"They accuse me of leaving it unattended,” Pyron said.
Since the lawsuit, the longtime companions moved in together.
Pyron has health problems and Ellison helps care for him.
"I don't know what I'd do without her,” Pyron said.
Pyron said he worries constantly about the lawsuit, which he says has been delayed five times since it was filed in May 2013 in Tarrant County District Court.
"When is it going to end? What's it going to cost me? Will I live long enough to see it?” he asked.
A review of the records by NBC 5 reveals another twist.
It turns out State Farm isn't the only insurance company involved.
Before the couple started living together, Pyron was covered by his own insurance company, Farmers, which is providing his attorney free of charge.
Pyron said he reviewed his old policy and found he should be covered up to $300,000 – more than enough to pay the claim.
So even though the lawsuit appears to be between her and him, in fact, it's really between the two insurance companies.
"It's a mess,” Ellison said.
After all this, Pyron probably won't have to pay a penny but still feels caught in the middle.
"It gets more frustrating every day because you know, I sit here and think about it -- think, think, think,” he said. “It just drives you buggy."
State Farm declined to comment on the case.
Farmers released a statement saying, “We are working diligently to secure all the relevant information necessary to properly defend our customer and hope to resolve this matter soon.”
Meanwhile, Ellison said her homeowners’ insurance has skyrocketed from about $1,200 per year to $1,000 per month. She said she can’t afford the higher rate and is forced to take her chances without insurance.