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Personal Injury Attorneys Must Be Wary Of Taking On Fire Claim Cases

As personal injury attorneys, we instinctively look for "how can we help". The Southern California wildfires have naturally brought out the consumer advocate in many personal injury attorneys across the state. There is that urgency on the part of many attorneys to help people who are without homes and figuratively lost as to the next step they need to take in terms of assessing their losses and filing claims.

But Richard Alexander, a very accomplished and knowledgeable personal injury attorney from San Jose, is quick to point out the dangers of this natural reaction of wanting to "go to the rescue" of the wildfire victims. Many personal injury attorneys, he says, don't have the knowledge or experience, he says, to even begin figuring out what they are getting into.

Alexander says there are many things attorneys need to understand before taking these cases pro bono or for free. First of all, he says, consider the expenses involved for the lawyer getting to the affected areas and taking time away from his other clients. Alexander is right. This is not a job you do over the telephone. You have to be physically present at the site of the disaster.

Alexander gives the example of a fire case where he successfully prosecuted against the State of California. On behalf of his client, Alexander alleged that the fire on Route 17 in Santa Clara County burned uphill and destroyed a family's entire automobile racing product business because the weeds and bushes there had not been cleared. That case settled in the plaintiff's favor 10 days before trial.

But then again, Alexander says it never is easy. Assembling the evidence is more than half the battle. An attorney needs to be prepared to sift through the charred remains looking for every piece of metal and traces of objects that were destroyed in the blaze. Alexander drew from his own personal experience when his home burned. The first step, he says, is to start creating the inventory, which is a lengthy and arduous process. It could be even more difficult for an attorney who hasn't done it before.

Here's his main advice on the matter: "If you don't have experience and clearly do not know how much work it is to process a property damage claim, the last thing anyone should do is take on a fire damage case on a pro bono basis. You are looking at a major tar baby. Don't doubt that for a minute."

Still, Alexander offers some tips for homeowners:

  • Rent a house quickly before the market dries up
  • Inform insurance and mortgage companies about the loss
  • Obtain a copy of the policy and understand the terms of coverage
  • Sift through the rubble to identify what burned and take lots of photographs

Another challenge for personal injury attorneys will be to find a contractor, Alexander says. Many, especially during these times when demand is extremely high, will make hay while the sun shines. They'll charge outrageous rates. Many may not even be local, but guys from out of state, who'll come here to meet the increasing demand.

Negotiating a contract takes a good understanding of the insurance policy and could be a touchy challenge if the personal injury attorney is not well-versed with how to do it. Alexander says most personal injury attorneys don't have the depth of knowledge or experience to do it. Some think they know, but in reality, don't know, he says. Attorneys will also be well advised to consult their malpractice insurance carrier before taking on cases that are outside their areas of experience or expertise.

The best bet is to hire a licensed claims adjuster who can do everything in one shot - from managing the claim, finalizing a building contract and writing an inventory. They usually charge 10 percent of the claim that's collected. But Alexander says they are worth every penny you pay them. Why? Because this is what they do for a living. They are experts. They have the experience it takes and know what they're doing, which is vital in these situations.

Alexander also looks at the flip side of the coin, which is not very pleasant. He says these people who lost their homes lived in homes that are not designed to do well in a fire. They chose to live in these high-risk areas and hillsides with vegetation that has the propensity to burn when the Santa Ana winds start gusting in the fall. Insurance companies, he says, will also look at what homeowners did to correct the flow of air around the house to minimize burning potential and whether they cleared brush and weeds around their homes.

Given all these considerations, Alexander advises attorneys not to be in a rush to take on fire loss claims unless they have some serious experience with fire claims and homeowners insurance coverage issues. Alexander says he won't take them on even with the knowledge or experience because of the hassles involved.

But, he says, public education is the key. And attorneys should leave that role to the State Bar of California or the Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego county bars. They have the funding and the resources to host public meetings and put out information to the public on how to hire the right adjuster, attorney and contractor for the respective jobs.

Says Alexander: "In my experience, most personal injury lawyers are way over their head in providing the quality of service, knowledge and experience these plaintiffs will need."

Homeowners should be wary of any attorney, adjusting service or contractor that solicits their business in this chaotic time.

Attorneys are not allowed by bar association rules to directly solicit homeowners in person either themselves or through an employee or agent. They are allowed to send you advertisements for their services however. If you are directly, personally solicited in person by a law firm, you may be best served reporting the matter to the State Bar of California 800-843-9053.

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