It was a minor clerical error, the kind that bureaucracies seem to grind out with regularity and eventually exile to forgotten computer disks or yellowing printouts.
A Pasadena administrator had inadvertently omitted the name of a disabled Water and Power Department employee, Leroy Herndon, from a computerized list of insured workers.
Normally, the problem would have been caught in a few weeks.
But this one was not, and it has ravaged the life of Herndon's widow, Dorothy, and their three children.
In the five months since Herndon died of acute lymphocytic leukemia, the family has waged a frustrating battle against the city and two insurance companies for $18,500 in life insurance benefits.
Agreed to Pay Benefits
Even though the city finally agreed to pay the benefits this week, the family is at least $23,000 in debt and faces eviction from its home in Rialto.
Dorothy Herndon's attorney, John C. Burton, bypassed the city staff and went directly to the Board of Directors on Monday for help.
Just one day later, the city agreed to pay Herndon the $18,500, and board members apologized for the delay.
But Herndon, a cheerful woman who both laughed and cried during an interview as she described the events of the last five months, said the money came too late to clear the debts and save the home they were in the process of buying.
"I'm so deep into it now there's really no way out," she said.
What led to Herndon's financial problems might be comical if it was not so tragic, attorney Burton said.
Leroy Herndon, a 42-year-old Vietnam veteran, had worked for the city since 1982 as an energy conservation adviser in the Water and Power Department.
In January, 1986, he noticed what would be the first of many ailments that would wrack his body. The first symptoms included an earache, slurred speech, exhaustion and an occasional blackout.
"I didn't think anything about it," his widow said. "I honestly thought that maybe he was getting drunk."
Battery of Tests
But after a battery of tests, doctors discovered he was terminally ill with leukemia and could die in a matter of weeks or months.
He took disability leave from work in January and entered the City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte. He later suffered a heart attack, had liver problems and his weight dropped from 185 to about 100 pounds.
After five months, "they just gave up on him and he wanted to go home to die," Dorothy Herndon said.
The bills began to mount after nurses were hired to come to the home each day to care for him.
The city and its insurance company refused to pay for the nurses, saying they were unnecessary, according to a letter from Leisha Newman, the city's employee benefits coordinator.
Dorothy Herndon thought of fighting that decision but decided instead to use all of her husband's $7,000 in retirement benefits. The family still owes the nurses about $3,000. One nurse was given Leroy Herndon's wrist watch as partial payment.
Their son became so upset that he was briefly hospitalized for psychiatric treatment, which added $12,000 more to the family's debts.
After Herndon died at home in January, the family immediately applied for $18,500 in death benefits from his life insurance policy with the city.
Insurance Companies Changed
But in September, the city changed insurance companies, said Kermit Francis, director of the city's Personnel Department.
Normally, that would not have caused a problem, but when a computerized list of employees was submitted to the new insurance company, a clerk forgot to include the names of employees who were on disability leave, he said.
The other disabled employees were added to the new policy when they returned to work. Herndon was the only one who died while on disability leave.
As a result, Herndon was not covered under the new policy issued by Standard Insurance Co. of Portland, Ore., or by the city's former insurance company, Confederation Life Insurance.
Not on List
Even though Herndon was not included on the list of those to be insured by Standard, he still would have been eligible for death benefits from Confederation if the city had notified the company about his disability.
In fact, the city would not have had to continue paying for Herndon's policy if it had notified the company about his condition and requested a payment waiver that was allowed under the policy for anyone on disability leave.
But Francis said no one in the city was aware at the time of such a waiver.
"I really don't have a good reason why we didn't know," he said. "It's always been there. It's just never been utilized."
Argument Over Resolution
From January to May, the city and the two insurance companies argued over how to resolve the problem.
In retrospect, Francis said, the city staff should have asked the board to pay Herndon to avoid the hardship that the family endured.
"But we just did not think to do that," he said. "Maybe we got caught up in the mechanics of it all."