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$7.2-Million Verdict Favors Altadena Pair : Lawsuit: The couple, forced from their home by a 1990 fire, are awarded damages after a jury determines that their insurer, Fire Insurance Exchange, mishandled their claim.


A dispute over $7,500 led to a $7.2-million jury verdict after an Altadena couple whose house burned sued one of California's largest insurance companies.

Charles and Patricia Woods had filed suit in Pasadena Superior Court alleging that Fire Insurance Exchange, a firm owned by Farmers Insurance Co., bungled their house fire claim.

The errors and delays left them without a usable house for more than four years and also caused Mrs. Woods to be wrongly arrested on suspicion of defrauding an innkeeper, the couple said in their lawsuit.

The couple, both 51, were awarded the money Sept. 27 after a six-week trial. The jury found that they were owed $626,000 for expenses incurred since the fire and $6.6 million in punitive damages.

But Farmers spokesman John Millen said the Los Angeles-based company, which has 1.4 million homeowner polices statewide, prides itself on customer service and believes it acted fairly with the Woodses. He declined to say whether the company would appeal.

Millen pointed out that in another lawsuit filed by the insurance company against Charles and Patricia Woods, the judge ruled that the couple had been overpaid $16,000 for the fire damages.

The legal tussle arose after a March 30, 1990, fire damaged the kitchen and attic of the couple's house in the 2900 block of McNally Street. The fire forced the couple to relocate, along with an adult son who lived with them, to the Embassy Suites Hotel in Arcadia.

Confusion over payment of a hotel bill led Arcadia police to arrest Mrs. Woods on May 23, 1990. Embassy Suites operators called police because the couple had moved to a hotel next door and Embassy Suites was still owed $1,001.

But the hotel had been slow to issue a bill, so the couple used insurance company money to buy food and pay the bill at the second hotel, said the Woodses' attorney, Mark Didak. The district attorney assigned to the case never filed criminal charges against Mrs. Woods, calling the matter a civil dispute, Didak said. In June, 1990, the insurance company paid the couple more than $55,000 for repairs. But because the insurance adjuster failed to discover asbestos in the roof and did not include later rain damage, the Woodses said the actual cost of repairs would come to $62,500. When the insurance company refused to pay more, the couple filed a lawsuit in March, 1991.

Embassy Suites, which was also previously listed in the couple's suit, settled its part in the lawsuit in June, 1994, by agreeing to pay the couple $50,000.

The ongoing dispute has meant the couple have been unable to fix their house and have lived in rented rooms since the fire, Didak said.

"These people haven't had a house for 4 1/2 years," the attorney said.

The attorney for Fire Insurance Exchange argued in court that the company was not to blame for Mrs. Woods' arrest. The company never received a bill from Embassy Suites and had paid money directly to the family, who should have paid the bill.

The insurance company also said it was not at fault for failing to find the asbestos, which even the Woodses' own contractor missed, and blamed the couple for later rain damage, saying they failed to cover the hole in the roof from the fire.

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