September 7, 2011 Leave a comment
After the Old Fire, the Mayor and Common Council of the City of San Bernardino authorized the City Attorney’s Office to assist San Bernardino residents (and later, people in unincorporated areas adjacent to the City of San Bernardino). Though this was highly unusual (having public attorneys directly assist the public), I was honored to do so, and I saw it as a continuation of my public service work that I had started as the staff attorney at Legal Aid Society of San Bernardino and continued with my nuisance abatement work as a city prosecutor.
While helping members of the public with their legal problems occasioned by their houses burning down and losing all their possessions, we distributed a useful guide published by the mega-law firm Morrison & Foerster LLP. Though no doubt Morrison & Foerster LLP’s hardworking associates did the heavy lifting, it had the seal of a variety of voluntary bar associations (including the San Bernardino County Bar Association) and the State Bar of California on the back. Here is a blurb from the Morrison & Foerster LLP website that explains why they created this guide:
In 2007, a series of wild fires broke out in Southern California, destroying at least 1,500 homes and burning over 500,000 acres of land from Santa Barbara County to the US–Mexico border. Nine people died as a direct result of the fire.
The Helping Handbook, which contained information about legal issues that people may face in an emergency, as well as contact information for organizations offering assistance, was originally created as a legal guide for individuals, victims’ families, and small businesses affected by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Since then, MoFo has continued to work with state and local bars to create versions of the Helping Handbook for people displaced by natural disasters such as the Southern California wildfires of 2003, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the New York flooding in 2006.
With the 2007 wildfires leaving many people displaced in its wake, MoFo decided to create a version of the Helping Handbook to help victims manage in the aftermath. Many of the affected residents’ primary language was Spanish. During this critical time, when advice on how to manage this critical situation was needed most, MoFo and TransPerfect Legal Solutions decided to work together to provide Spanish-speakers with accessible, accurate information about the resources available to help them.
The most recent Morrison & Foerster Helping Handbook is from 2008. As we begin another fire season, (and after the Hill Fire has been contained) hopefully this guide can help people who do not know where to turn after a disaster.
The most important valuable lessons I learned from the Old Fire and its aftermath are that public adjusters must have the best lobbyist in Sacramento. I never met anyone who was satisfied with a public adjuster. Here is sage advice from the 2008 Helping Hands Fire Handbook:
What is a public insurance adjuster and what should I look for if I decide to hire one?
Public insurance adjusters claim that they can maximize your insurance benefits by finding damage
that an insurance company adjuster might not find. It is generally recommended that you try and settle
an insurance claim directly with your insurance company before you hire a public insurance adjuster.
Your insurance company provides an adjuster to you at no charge. If you use the insurance company’s
adjuster, you still have the right to separately hire a public adjuster to help you. Public adjusters are paid
a fee or a percentage of your claim. It is important that you understand what the fees are and how they
are calculated before you hire a public adjuster. It is always a good idea to rely on referrals from friends
and family to determine which public adjusters are legitimate. If you decide to hire a public adjuster, do
so in writing and make sure that they are licensed. Call the California Department of Insurance (CDI) at
(800) 967-9331 or access the CDI’s website at http://www.insurance.ca.gov for licensing verification and other
information regarding public adjusters. You can also file a complaint at the website or by calling the CDI’s
consumer hotline at (800) 927-4357.
Morrison & Foerster LLP, Helping Handbook, For Individuals and Small Businesses Affected by the 2008 Southern California Wildfires, Pg. 65
If an insurance company is not honoring the policy after negotiations by the policyholder, it is much better to find an attorney who specializes in insurance bad faith who may charge the policyholder a lot less and do a lot more than a public adjuster. I do not practice insurance bad faith law, but I was impressed with some of the attorneys that handled bad faith claims after the Old Fire.
The second thing I learned is that you have to analyze your insurance company and your policy, including exclusions, before a disaster. The way a company treated policyholders poorly made me switch to another company. I requested a larger policy limit with my new insurance company which covered the rebuilding of my house. Of course, after a fire is not the time to change the policy.
The last thing I learned is that it is difficult to inventory your belongings after a disaster. For one, there is the grief associated with losing your possessions, and there are too many details that you cannot remember. If you can, inventory your personal property before a disaster, and keep a copy of the list (and pictures and video) off-site.
The three biggest problems the Old Fire victims I assisted had were with their insurance company, then with their contractors or public adjusters, then with their mortgage companies. Some were underinsured, some were uninsured.
The information you obtain at this blog is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is established by reading or commenting on this blog. You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.