September 21, 2019

Insurance Expert: After the Fires

The November wildfires ravaged vast swaths of Northern and Southern California, resulting in record-setting death and destruction. Losses significantly impacted sects of Los Angeles’ Jewish community with summer camps destroyed and countless Jewish Angelenos losing homes or having to evacuate.   

For many of these people, a nightmarish prospect lies ahead: insurance battles.The Journal reached out to Thomas W. Henderson, a shareholder at the law firm of Burg Simpson Eldredge Hersh & Jardine based in Denver, Colorado. Tom Henderson focuses his practice on representing policyholders in suing insurance companies for bad faith and getting insurance companies to pay what the insurance policy promises to pay.

He’s one of the lead attorneys currently working to bring justice to victims of June’s Durango 416 fire, the sixth largest in Colorado’s history. 

Henderson spoke with the Journal about his personal experience working closely with fire victims and the wide-ranging ramifications going forward for those impacted by the California wildfires. 

Jewish Journal: Given your experience working for victims of the Durango 416 fire, can you speak about what you imagine these people are going through right now? 

Tom Henderson: It’s very similar to stages of grief. Initially, people are just in utter disbelief. Then comes the anger directed at the situation. In Durango, there was no loss of life, but I have represented folks who have lost loved ones, including the families suing for wrongful death. No matter what, it’s really a traumatic experience and, folded into all of that, is the insurance component.

JJ: How does the insurance component compound the problem? 

TH: Once they get over the initial grief, they’re happy they have insurance and are trusting that [it will] take care of them. Unfortunately, insurance too often leaves them shorthanded and frustrated by the whole process. Meanwhile, they’re dealing with trauma, certainly the worst possible kind being losing a loved on, or there’s losing their worldly possessions and their home. It’s not uncommon that, as a lawyer, you end up playing the role of part-time social worker.

JJ: What legal resources should fire victims be turning to? 

TH: I know that the California Bar Association issued a fraud warning to let folks know that, unfortunately, there are some less-than-ideal characters out there who will swoop in and take advantage of trusting people at this stage. What those folks need to do is certainly check references and double check references. The handling of forest fire cases isn’t extraordinarily complicated, but folks are best served when they’re dealing with a lawyer who has been through the drill before. They need someone who knows how to find resources of information to ascertain who is at fault and where there might be remedies.

JJ: What insurance difficulties will California fire victims will be facing? 

TH: Sometimes, where I’ve had the most tears shed on my shoulder by folks who have lost everything is when the insurance companies ask for a complete inventory of everything that was in the house. The trauma that engenders is tremendous. You’re asking a person to rifle through, in their mind, sometimes physically through ash, all of their most cherished belongings. That becomes such a traumatic time, and I’ll put in a plug for a great organization called United Policyholders, a nonprofit that can be found at uphelp.org. They provide a number of helpful pointers in terms of how to help people to navigate through that and other things that come up.  

JJ: What type of future are we looking at in these areas? Will there be long-lasting environmental ramifications? 

 “Sometimes, where I’ve had the most tears shed on my shoulder by folks who have lost everything is when the insurance companies ask for a complete inventory of everything that was in the house. The trauma that engenders is tremendous.”

TH: Most likely yes. After the Montecito fires (in 2017), one of the things that caused the most destruction were rains that came along many months later. After these fires, there’s no longer groundcover to hold topsoil in place so the topsoil doesn’t absorb the rain, and whole slopes shed away causing tremendous damage. That’s a complicated factor and it’s not uncommon. 

JJ: How does that impact insurance? 

TH: Insurance companies will try to deny damage caused by subsequent flooding, since most policies have flood exclusions and most don’t address mud, even though, at its beginnings, it was really all caused by fire. That’s going to end up becoming a significant problem in the areas of California beset by these fires. Even the people that are breathing a huge sigh of relief after narrowly escaping losing a home in the fire, many of those folks will, perhaps this coming spring or whenever the rains come out, find themselves faced with a loss they thought they managed to escape. It really makes you cry.

JJ: How will property value be affected in those areas? 

TH: These types of fires affect property value dramatically. That’s not just because someone’s place burned down. It’s the burn scar. A place that had a beautiful forest now looks like a lunarscape and the trees are just twigs. There’s also the threat of a mudslide, which, generally speaking, takes 10 years for the ground cover to be solid enough to be back to pre-fire status quo. The trees take longer. If you have a home in an area that has potential to be on the wrong side or receiving end of a mudslide, you’re going to suffer a big loss in value.

JJ: In your expert opinion, what do these people need most right now? How can people who want to help but don’t know how be of service? 

TH: I would say just the basic human needs. That probably can be coordinated through the Red Cross or a similar organization. Certainly, for lawyers out there, they need to be willing to meet with folks at no charge to help navigate through their insurance policies. 

JJ: What’s something these victims are going through that most in the general public simply couldn’t know about or understand? 

TH: So many of the victims will end up in an ongoing battle with their own insurance company. I want to add that in situations like this, the communities really rally together. There are kids making banners saying thanks to firefighters and all the first responders. You want to talk about heroes? Those are the real heroes. But, the rallying together, if you think about it, is really the lone positive.