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After the Fire-Getting Your Life Back from the Ashes

Posted by Jane Akre
Thursday, November 01, 2007 1:05 AM EST
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-An Interview with Richard Alexander

Richard AlexanderAlexander has been a California attorney since 1972 and is among the most published in the country, authoring more than 200 articles on personal injury. Alexander is dedicated to public education and the 35th lawyer to have an online web site created in 1996, www.consumerlawpage.com

Among the cases he’s tackled –toxic chemical litigation representing victims of brain tumors who worked at Pratt Whitney; 260 IBM families with children with birth defects near White Plains, N.Y.; representing National Semiconductor employees in Scotland who experienced high levels of breast cancer. Currently he represents families suffering from cancer clusters near the Uniroyal plant in Eu Claire, Wisconsin.

He was the first attorney to file a case against General Motors for side saddlebag gas tanks and the first to collect from BMW over a defective design in the early 1970’s.  Based on 35 years personal injury work going back to working alongside Melvin Belli in 1972, Alexander also knows fires.   

Unfortunately, he lived through one that burned down his Palo Alto family home.  That experience taught him what you need to know before you start sifting through the ashes of your California home. Alexander also successfully prosecuted the state of California for uncleared nuisance vegetation on Route 17 in Santa Clara County that burned uphill, destroying the Kaeding family business specializing in high performance automobile facing products. The state paid the $2.5 million claim.

IB News, Jane Akre spoke to Alexander about what he recommends to Southern California fire victims.

Q:  Assume you are among the 1,500 who’ve lost their homes, you might have kept your important papers safe or maybe you’ve lost them. Give me a checklist of what a person should do and what questions they need to ask?

A:  “First, create an inventory.   In the Kaeding case we had business records and a handful of pre-fire photographs, so we pitch forked our way through the wreckage, just as I had when my home burned, took lots of photos and put a public adjusting firm to work creating the inventory and appraisal based on all the evidence we assembled. 

Do not bulldoze the ashes and waster. Buy several pitchforks, booties and face masks and go through the rubble to identify what burned and photograph it. Many metal parts will survive and will spark your memory.  The debris is very helpful and it will also jog your memory as to the other items that were consumed. The protective clothing is important because you don’t want to be exposed to the carbon. Hindsight says to have photographs of your home documenting your possessions and print it out or put it into a CD in a safe deposit box or somewhere off site.

In our home fire, I took my two neighbors who had borrowed just about everything in my garage at one time or another and we walked through Orchard Supply.  They picked identified and picked out every item that I had lost and I wrote a check for $12,000 at the check out.  A garage often holds the most valuable non-scheduled items in anyone’s home. When I submitted my inventory I turned over the Orchard Supply receipt, the Orvis receipt and the receipts from Any Mountain where we bought all new ski gear.  The carrier didn’t like that, but that was going to be our testimony.

Q: When you live in an area with particular natural dangers- don’t you have to be prepared?

A:  “Yes of course, but this is much different from hurricanes or rising waters of Louisiana.  Fire  claimants are in a much better position than claimants in Louisiana. There is no wiggle room on what caused the damage as opposed to the wind versus water damage debate of hurricanes.

At this point, finding the right lawyer is going to be the key. When you hire a lawyer to do anything, it’s very important to quiz them in extensively about their experience. Because you want experience, experience, experience. Someone who knows exactly what to do, who’s been there and done that. Most people hire a lawyer from a referral or from someone who has no experience but has a personal relationship and you can’t hire a lawyer based on the fact that they are a nice person and they want to help.  You have to know their track record. 

With the fires in San Diego there are a lot of experienced lawyers in that area.    Carriers will be appropriately sensitive to these issues, but they are still insurance companies. They take money in and do not let it go out. So you have to be assertive and document your communications. President Reagan said it best, trust but always verify. 

Q:    You also say bring in a public adjusting firm?  Who are they and how valuable will they be?  

A: “They are folks who have experience in appraising property and operate and act like lawyers, they represent you in a contractual basis— usually 10 percent.  They serve as someone who knows how to prepare and present a claim and will provide the guidance on how to document the claim and what’s needed.   They interface with the carrier in a knowledgeable manner.  Many of them have insurance industry adjusting experience.  They join these firms that do public adjusting and handle monumental losses and are used by major businesses and corporations.  They are invaluable because they’ve been through it and know how to present a claim, cut the deal on rebuilding and guide the writing of an inventory and that will later stand judicial scrutiny if the owners don’t cave in on the negotiation of their loss.   They are worth every penny because they know what they are doing.”

Q: You’ve got 1,800 homeless people, where are they going to live?

A: “Absolutely, rent a house FAST!    The market is going to dry up very fast. There are not going to be available 1,800 houses to rent. All California carriers have to pay the cost of hotels, meals and daily costs you incur from the evacuation. But there might be a limit.  And many people are going to find they are underinsured.  

Other things to remember:

  • Put the insurance carrier and mortgagor on notice of the loss
  • Get a copy of the policy from the carrier, since it probably burned up in the fire.  Have someone read it who understands coverage which is a specialty in itself. That could be a public adjustor or an attorney with experience. Don’t just pick any lawyer. 
  • Most policies are relatively obtuse because they are written by experts to be litigated and dictated by state insurance regulators to protect the carrier.  I do a lot of bad faith litigation.
  • Now you need to deal with a contractor. Most will be charging outrageous rates, which are to be expected because of the huge demand and they will be coming in from all around the western United States. And you must understand the policy before the contract with the builder is negotiated.

Q: Because you’ll be dealing with insurance companies, what questions do you need to ask an attorney you might hire?

A: “Ask them what experience they have in representing someone in a claim and get names and phone numbers and towns and where and when this happened.  Ask, “What was the general nature of the claims and were there any problems in prosecuting claims?; “Who were the carriers and did you resort to litigation?;  “How can I minimize attorneys fees? “Do you have any experience with a public adjuster?” Also ask whether they are often in their office advising people or outside the office where they often cannot be reached. Ask for their cell phone and home phone number. I’d never call someone at home but see if they give you this information.  Talk to a couple of people and don’t operate on the premise that all lawyers are fungible.

Q: How do you suggest finding the right lawyer?

A:   “Don’t pick based on central casting criteria.   Select one with a track record, maybe who has served on state bar and local bar committees on issues you are concerned about.  And talk to people who should know. Ask the county bar president if this attorney’s practice has continued to thrive and whether the community is aware of any emotional upset, divorce or an ill child that might create miserable problems. Then ask, “Who are the top two in the pile?” You might ask the top family lawyer or divorce lawyer who is the best for handling real estate insurance property damage claims. Who would they use?

You must immediately discuss fees and then use them sparingly, letting them tell you where to go to get it done.

Q: How do you negotiate a construction contract? 

A:  “A business lawyer who has done transactions for a small firm, maybe someone in the same shop who negotiates construction contracts and works with contractors to make sure you’re protected. You want to make sure, especially in California that you don’t stipulate to arbitration. They’ll lay you down and run over you. And obviously don’t sign anything from an insurance company saying “general release.” 

Another thing that’s important—recognize that emotionally, you and your family will suffer substantial emotional distress. Keep your eyes open to post-traumatic-stress-syndrome. After our house burned down we rented a house in Palo Alto. It was an attractive house with our bedroom windows on three sides but I found myself waking up at 3am. I never connected the dots. I was experiencing trauma and you need to be sensitive to those issues, especially dealing with children.   Our children had a terrible time because bicycles were destroyed.   My son starting to cry that his hamster was inside. Come with me, the firefighter said. The roof was burning, he asked me, “Where are the pictures?” We went to the laundry room and got baskets and took pictures off the wall and we got the hamster out of the family room and my son was so thrilled.  Then we bought them new bicycles and let them pick what they wanted.  That was important.

Q: When people choose to live in areas with a higher percentage of fire danger- is there anything they can do to correct the flow of air around a house to minimize the potential for burning in Santa Ana conditions?

A: “We also know from the analysis of major urban fires such as the Oakland Hills fire that it is necessary to clear all vegetation and create fire safe zones around houses and that is an all- too-common failure.  Until they have a major loss, most folks want to live under and close to shade trees with good foliage around their house.  Big mistake.

We know that homeowners using Barricade, a fire resistant emulsion that stops houses from catching fire at a cost of $350 to $500 a home, that was used by a very wise fire chief in Mount Palomar, will have fared best.

Q: A number of personal injury lawyers had decided they want to help and are volunteering to work pro bono helping the homeless- given your experience is that wise?

A: “Under no circumstances should anyone rush into take on fire loss claims unless they have lots of hands on experience with fire claims and insurance coverage issues under homeowner’s policies.

I have the experience and I wouldn’t.  Public education is what is needed.

Helping this public can best be addressed by the large and well funded bars in Southern California who can best serve the public by organizing public meetings and articles on

  1. how to hire the right public adjusting firm.
  2. how to hire the right lawyer with homeowners property loss experience to help
  3. how to avoid hiring the wrong contractor
  4. having a lawyer with construction contract experience negotiate your re-construction.

This public education project is perfectly well suited for The State Bar of California, the Los Angeles County Bar and the San Diego County Bar.  They have the membership, expertise and cash to get this done.#





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