LOS ANGELES (CNS) – Mercury Casualty Co. owes thousands of dollars in
damages to 49 claimants underpaid by the insurer after their homes were
damaged by residue from the 2009 Station Fire, an attorney told a jury today.
“Mercury was looking for excuses not to pay the claims or to pay as
little as they could possibly get away with,” lawyer Michael Cohen said during
his final argument in trial of his clients’ lawsuit against the company.
Cohen recommended damages ranging from $8,600 to $36,000 to make his
clients whole, plus another two to three times their individual damage amounts
to each for their emotional distress.
The plaintiffs’ homes were not damaged by the flames, but instead by
smoke, soot and ash. They lived in an area roughly spanning from Pacoima to
An attorney for Mercury will give his closing argument this afternoon.
In his opening statement in early May, defense lawyer John Hager said a public
adjusting firm, Advantage Loss Group, inflated claims and signed up most of the
people who eventually sued Mercury in December 2010. He also said the
plaintiffs were compensated fairly and that some claims were brought nearly a
year after the fire began.
In their court papers, attorneys for the plaintiffs say many of their
clients found out later that their damages were worse than originally believed.
The lawyers also contend that Mercury used only two industrial hygienists to
inspect each claim and that each report contained nearly identical results,
regardless of how far a residence was from the fire.
“It was designed to pay far less than what could be reasonably taken to
restore their homes to the condition they were in before the fire,” Cohen
said. “They pre-judged each of these claims and treated them as if they were
fraudulent claims from the very beginning.”
Cohen also said Mercury did not meet its ethical obligations to customers.
“The company put their interests ahead of the claimants throughout this
process,” Cohen said. “Every Mercury employee was given an incentive to pay
as little as they could.”
Five of the 49 claimants received no money from Mercury at all because
their damage was not considered severe enough, he said.
Instead of following the insurance industry standard and using Xactimate
software to calculate the claimants’ losses, Mercury hired a small cleaning
company with no experience in restoring smoke-damaged homes, Cohen said. The
company gave cleaning estimates that did ignored damage to walls, ceilings and
mattresses, he said.
The Station Fire began along Angeles Crest Highway and eventually became
the largest blaze ever in Los Angeles County in terms of the amount of land
burned — more than 160,000 acres, according to James McMullen, a fire
protection consultant who testified earlier in the trial.
McMullen said the fire began on Aug. 26, 2009, in a ravine, and
firefighters had to battle steep terrain and sharp updrafts of wind.
The fire, which was not contained until Oct. 16, 2009, burned 250 square
miles, destroyed more than 200 structures, including 89 homes, wiped out the
community of Hidden Springs, and killed two Los Angeles County firefighters
trying to protect their mountain camp.
(No Ratings Yet)