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Attorneys are offering legal services to Napa fire victims, but do they need it?

Attorneys are offering legal services to Napa fire victims, but do they need it?

Attorneys claiming to specialize in wildfire litigation seem to be pouring their advertisements all over Napa Valley — taking out radio ads, half-pages in the newspaper and banner ads online. Google “fire insurance” and an ad for a law firm is the first thing to come up.

But do people really need an attorney? The answer is maybe.

“I wasn’t surprised when I heard advertising for attorneys for this kind of case,” said Paul Corah, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spokesman. It’s something that happens following every disaster in the U.S., Corah says.

Whether it’s wind damage in Corpus Christi, Texas, or major flooding in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, attorneys are going to be there to try to “help” homeowners, said Corah, who was most recently deployed for Hurricane Harvey before returning to his home state for the Northern California wildfires.

“For the majority of homeowners who’ve lost their house I don’t see the need for an attorney,” Corah said. “In most cases, insurance companies are trying to get the homeowner back into their home.”

Most fire insurance covers the home and the contents inside the home, but people may run into problems because they are underinsured, Corah said. About a third of homeowners are, he said. Usually, someone ends up underinsured because their home value went up and they didn’t reevaluate their insurance with their agent, he said.

Some of those holes – including not having insurance or being underinsured – can be covered in other ways, like applying for relief from FEMA and/or applying for a loan from the Small Business Administration (SBA).

If a homeowner doesn’t qualify for a FEMA grant, they may qualify for an SBA loan, which can offer temporary assistance to homeowners at a 1¾-percent interest rate and to business owners at a 3.3-percent interest rate, says SBA spokesman Bill Koontz.

No matter how much insurance someone has, homeowners may still need more money than their policy pays them, Koontz said.

“Some people come to legal recourse about things to do with disasters,” he said.

It’s when there’s an argument between the homeowner and the insurance company when a lawyer might need to be involved, Corah said. People may also seek out an attorney when there is liability, he added.

The law firms who are advertising now are assuming there is liability and that Pacific Gas & Electric Co (PG&E) is to blame, lawyers say.

“The overwhelming weight of the info that’s been available indicates the PG&E started the fire,” says Patrick McNicholas of McNicholas & McNicholas of Los Angeles. If it turns out that PG&E isn’t responsible for the fires, then the clients lose nothing, McNicholas said.

“We assume all the risk,” he said.

The causes of the fires are still under investigation, according to Cal Fire.

In the meantime, though, PG&E’s stock plummeted earlier in the month after the company said it had about $800 million in liability insurance to cope with “possible losses” that could be related to the fires.

“If your house burns down and insurance covered 100 percent of your loss, which it never does, would you still have a claim? The answer is yes,” McNicholas says.

Even in cases where homeowners have insurance and are not underinsured, there are still things that insurance can’t pay for, McNicholas said. One of those things is emotional distress.

“Some people were literally running to get away from flames,” he said. Living through something like a wildfire can cause varying degrees of emotional effects, he said, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The purpose of obtaining a lawyer, he said, is to collect from the responsible party.

“Our biggest concern, quite frankly, is these people have no place to turn,” said Gregory Montegna of The Law Offices of Gregory A. Montegna in Chula Vista. One man he spoke with during an informational meeting in Napa on Saturday was literally in tears, Montegna said. “You feel compelled to help ‘em; it’s so devastating – no matter what the end result is.”

Montegna said he doesn’t know if other attorneys are trying to take advantage of people when they’re at their worst, but he’s not. He has hundreds of cases already as well as three children under age 10.

Some people won’t be charged legal fees at all, he said, when the case is through. Others, though, may be charged up to 30 percent. That percentage won’t be taken out of any payments made by insurance companies, though, just the liable party.

“You want to make sure the attorney you’re considering is well credentialed and experienced,” McNicholas said. “People have to look at the experience and the track records of the firm.”

Genevieve Richardson, a managing attorney with Bay Area Legal Aid, said although legal aid doesn’t specialize in insurance, she wants to make sure people know and understand their legal rights. Free “Know Your Rights” workshops will be offered soon, she said, so people don’t have to rely on information sessions sponsored by private law firms.

“What we are anticipating is that the legal issues are coming,” Richardson said. There are still legal issues coming out of Hurricane Katrina, which hit Louisiana in 2005, she said.

James Frantz of Frantz Law Group in San Francisco said his firm is filing two wrongful death cases and several “total burn downs” against the PG&E next week.

Wildfire Legal Group has already filed a case against the company. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Sonoma County resident Pamela Schrock who lost her home in the Nuns Fire, according to a statement released by the firm Saturday. The complaint alleges that PG&E is liable due to negligent and improper maintenance, inspection, repair, and ownership of their electrical distribution system.

WildFire Legal Group, which held several informational meetings in the Bay Area this past weekend, expects to file more complaints against the company on behalf of other plaintiffs who have suffered fire damages.

The Nuns Fire, combined with other fires, including the Partrick Fire, burned more than 110,000 acres in Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties, according to Cal Fire. In total, the Northern California wildfires have burned more than 200,000 acres of land and at least 42 people have been confirmed dead since the fires started Oct. 8.

Gov. Jerry Brown said Saturday that “the Northern California fires of October 2017 were by far the most lethal and destructive wildfire disaster in the history of California.”

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Maria Sestito is the former Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. She now writes for the Register as a freelancer.

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