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Web Site Taking Complaints on Quake Insurers

May 09, 2000|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mounting complaints from homeowners over alleged mishandling of earthquake insurance claims have prompted a state Senate committee investigating the issue to launch a Web site to gather information electronically.

The Web site, http://www.insurancecomplaint.com, was set up over the weekend by the Senate Insurance Committee, chaired by Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Daly City). Dozens of callers had contacted the relatively low-profile committee in search of help.

"The level of anger that we are seeing is quite pronounced," said Richard Steffen, staff director for Speier and the Senate committee. "What we are capturing initially is a lot of people on their own who may have settled but basically feel they got ripped off."

He said about 75 callers since last week have wended their way through the Capitol maze to find the committee office, which does not often deal directly with consumers. The committee will meet Wednesday in Granada Hills to hear directly from earthquake victims at an informal town hall hearing.

Steffen said most callers tell long, sad stories with a tone of frustration.

"We're hearing about marriages that have been ruined, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been lost, a tremendous feeling of hopelessness. Attorneys are taking their money and the Department of Insurance doesn't do anything," Steffen said.

Steffen said the committee called for the hearing and set up the Web site because Insurance Department officials have refused to turn over files on consumer complaints to the committee.

The Web site, with a dramatic photograph of a crumbled apartment complex strewn with debris and scarred with graffiti, asks visitors to fill out an electronic form with a brief description of their disputed claim. Steffen said he hopes the forms will help the committee identify the underlying causes of disputes plaguing Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush.

About 200 people are expected to attend the committee hearing, to be held at 6 p.m. at Granada Hills High School, 10535 Zelzah Ave., near the epicenter of the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Earthquake victims and consumer groups last week called for the resignation or impeachment of the commissioner, noting that Quackenbush allowed insurance companies to avoid massive fines for their handling of Northridge earthquake claims by making donations to foundations controlled by his political allies.

Quackenbush says he has acted in consumers' interests, making more insurance products available at reduced rates.

The state Assembly, state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and the Fair Political Practices Commission are investigating Quackenbush's activities.

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