Firestorm Victims Sue Farmers Group

Lawsuit: Insurers denied claims, lowballed damage estimates

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    NEWSLETTERS

    A lot of local homeowners whose properties were damaged in the wildfires of October 2007 are still trying to collect on their insurance policies.

    Three dozen just filed suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court against the Farmers Group, accusing the insurers of denying or underpaying claims. Lawyers for the homeowners said that while their clients weren't burned out of their houses, the structures and surroundings were damaged by soot, ash, charring and wind. They allege that Farmers assigned "biased" adjusters to give lowball estimates -- the basis for undersize checks.

    Plaintiff Daniel Vanguardia said the $6,000 claim settlement he got from Farmers didn't begin to cover all the damage to his place in rural Spring Valley, where flames burned up to and around the house before firefighters saved it from destruction.

    Vanguardia, a retired Navy veteran, and his wife, Deanna, had been evacuated from the house for three days. They returned to find that the home's exterior stucco was extensively scorched, planks on the outdoor deck were charred through, the varnish on doors had vaporized, iceplant was roasted, trees were left lifeless and custom drapes inside the home melted. In addition, several big fish emptied out of an aquarium onto the wall-to-wall carpet, flopping to death after the power failed.

    "Man, it was really stinky!" Vanguardia recalled. "You know, the Pako fish?"

    Despite professional interior cleaning -- at a cost that Vanguardia cites as $3,000 -- the place still stinks.

    The Vanguardias said they don't dare invite guests over.

    "They might say, 'These guys are not cleaning their house,' or something like that, you know?" Daniel said. "They're not telling you, but it's the back of your mind, you know?"

    The dispute over the settlement is now in the hands of lawyers.

    "I'm not really after any big amount of money," Daniel said. "But I'm after what the damages are. That's all I care about."

    A spokesman for Farmers Group said the company's legal department is reviewing the lawsuit and had no immediate comment.

    The plaintiffs' Los Angeles-based law firm -- Kabateck, Brown, Kellner LLP -- has brought a similar case on behalf of clients in Los Angeles County who were affected by fires there in 2008.