All Fire Victims are Underinsured
I have been working with fire victims since October 8, 2017. I have interviewed eyewitnesses to the origin of the fires, I have enlisted a crew of videographers to photograph, interview and use drones to video client’s properties, and I have consulted experts in insurance coverage, horticulture, architecture and construction. What has become fundamentally clear is that anyone who has suffered an injury or property loss is under-insured. There are several areas where insurance won’t adequately cover the loss. They include:
- Loss of Use: Most insurance companies will cover 12-24 months only. To rebuild will likely take longer than 24 months. To get architectural plans approved through overburdened community development and permit departments will take several months. Then finding the right contractor who will prepare the site, lay a foundation and construct the building will take many more. If the home is not built within the 12-24 months, the owner will still be responsible for the mortgage and taxes. With several thousand structures needing to be rebuilt within the two counties, it will be tough to rebuild within the 12-24 month window.
- Landscape replacement. Most policies have a ceiling, and often times it is $5000 to $10,000. Mature landscaping is expensive to replace. For example, our expert horticulturists estimate the replacement cost of a mature oak tree can be several hundred thousand dollars.
- Soot and smoke damage. Again, most policies have a ceiling. To adequately clean and remove the carcinogens of soot and smoke damage from structures, landscaping and top soil will invariably exceed the insurance coverage.
- Building code updates. The building code has experienced over twenty revisions since the 1990’s. The full cost of seismic, fire safety, energy efficiency and green building upgrades are not covered.
- The full replacement value will not be covered. Some insurance policies will have 150% to 200% replacement cost in catastrophic fire cases. However, before the fires, Sonoma and Napa Counties were experiencing a shortage of workers during the harvest season. There are reports that the cost to rebuild has at least doubled since the fires, mainly due to supply and demand of construction workers as well as building materials like lumber and concrete. We predict that clients will inevitably need to dig into their own pockets if they want a full replacement of what was lost.
- Pain and suffering, emotional damage. The inconvenience, stress, anxiety and emotional trauma our clients have suffered are not covered by their homeowner’s policies.
- Lost wages. Not covered.
If we can prove liability in this case, full recovery of all of those areas would be covered under general theories of civil liability.
What has also become clear is that PG&E has admitted that their equipment was the source of most of the fires, with the exception of the largest and most devastating Tubbs fire, where they have reported in The Press Democrat that the Tubbs fire may have started on private property and equipment at 1128 Bennett Lane in Calistoga. We have learned through eyewitness accounts, security footage from a neighboring winery, photos of the burn patterns surrounding the area, photos of the area before the fire, and the prevalent wind direction of October 8, 2017, the Tubbs Fire did not originate on private lines on private property at 1128 Bennett Lane. To the contrary, we have developed very convincing evidence that PG&E is liable for failure to maintain and to keep their transmissions lines clear on Bennett Lane.
What we also know is that over the last three decades, PG&E has made a conscious decision to replace their equipment only when it breaks or fails. Consistent with this business model, is their failure to properly maintain their equipment and to take preventive action before a catastrophe befalls an area. California law also requires that a public utility is liable for their failure to keep their transmission and distribution lines clear by ten feet in any direction. This is a textbook case of negligence, also known as carelessness. In the Tubbs Fire, for example, PG&E will argue, as they have argued before in the Southern California fires, that this was an act of God due to the excessively high Santa Ana winds in the 2007 San Diego fires. However, there was nothing unusual about Santa Ana winds of Southern California that occur every fall in Southern California and same is true for the dry, westerly, Diablo winds of October 8, 2017. They are predictable, seasonal weather patterns. PG&E’s argument that the fires were unforeseeable won’t have merit, especially when there have historically been several fires in the same area. For example the Hanly Fire of 1964 which travelled the same route as the Tubbs Fire, the Santa Rosa fires in 1908, 1909, and 1910, and the more recent fires in Middletown all show a certain predictability.
Unparalleled Knowledge and Experience – Lower Fees
I have partnered with Top California Fire Attorneys in the state who were involved in the San Diego and San Bruno fires; they are also prosecuting cases for fire victims in the Porter Ranch Explosion and the recent Southern California fires and landslides. Jim Franz, Patrick McNicholas and Richard Bridgford have been fighting public utility companies in California, including PG&E over the last 30 years. If we can prove PG&E liable, then our clients will be able to recover the difference between what their insurance paid and what they are entitled to under the law, which can be significant. Our contingent fees are very simple. We take no fees on the insurance policy settlement, but will assist if needed in trying to resolve the insurance claims. Our 30% attorneys fee (most firms charge 40%) only applies to whatever, if anything, we recover from PG&E. There is no risk to our clients; they have nothing to lose by signing with our firms and letting us help them. We do, however, want to warn folks to be mindful of out of state firms who have set up shop who are not experienced with California fire cases, firms who charge for and take a percentage of the insurance proceeds, and firms that charge more than 30% on any recovery from PG&E.
This is Personal
The Sonoma and Napa county fires have had a profound impact upon my family, friends and colleagues. For example, my mother lives in Santa Rosa, my sister and brother in law (former mayor of Sonoma) and their extended family live in Sonoma, as well as several dear friends, colleagues and acquaintances who live in Sonoma and Napa Counties. My whole family retreated to my home during the evacuations, and every day was filled with an onslaught of tragic news throughout the community. The fires have affected so many people; it may be one of the biggest tragedies that I will ever witness.
I went into law as a means to help others. My career started as a prosecutor where I championed the rights of the most vulnerable victims. In private practice at my former firm, we were representing over 20,000 clients who were affected by the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the southern states when I was bought out of that firm on October 1, 2017. Then seven days later, a new calling appeared before my eyes. I feel compelled to help our fire victims and it appears that PG&E is responsible, but they aren’t going to pay anything without a big fight. Time is of the essence, we want to preserve valuable evidence. The first matter of business is to video tape the property and interview clients as soon as possible before the properties change or are bulldozed. We also want to file the cases as quickly as possible, because in large litigations like this, the first ones to file are typically the first ones to resolve.