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Lawsuit Charges Insurance Company With Short Changing Valley Residents PDF Print E-mail
Written by Bill Hetherman, City News Service   
Thursday, 17 May 2012 02:18

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Testifying in trial of a lawsuit brought by claimants against Mercury Casualty Co., a Pacoima man said he was paid less than one-third of the amount he believed was necessary to repair ash and soot damage to his home from the 2009 Station Fire.

Luis Vargas told a Los Angeles Superior Court jury that he received $7,500 from Mercury, but that the damage to his Jamie Avenue residence was $25,000.

"A lot of soot and ashes were dropping into our house and it was just a mess," he said. "We just kept cleaning."

He said the ashes clung to the floor inside and the window ledges outside.

"It was just everywhere,'' said Vargas, who works as a supervisor at a restaurant.

Vargas was asked by his lawyer, Michael Cohen, how he felt about getting only part of the money needed to return his home to how it was before the fire.

"It was stressful because if I get an estimate and I don't get what I'm supposed to get. it's upsetting,'' he said.

Mercury maintains it met its obligations to about 50 plaintiffs who contend the insurer delayed, denied or paid too little to repair the damage to their homes. Most of the plaintiffs have completed their testimony; Vargas was among the last to tell his story.

Mercury attorney 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.

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.

Vargas testified that he first became aware of the fire when he smelled it. He said he took the advice of neighbors and used the assistance of ALG to make a claim with Mercury and hired an attorney because he did not know how to handle the matter on his own.

Cross-examined by Hager, Vargas said a portion of the $7,500 from Mercury was used to pay his lawyer and ALG. Vargas also said ALG gave him the $25,000 damage estimate.

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.

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