March 18, 2012

By Andrew Blankstein and Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times

March 18, 2012

An elderly Hollywood Hills resident whose home was nearly destroyed when a dump truck crashed into it, rupturing a gas line and causing an explosion, was awarded more than $8 million after jurors found that his insurance company of more than 50 years failed to honor its contract.

The Los Angeles County Superior Court jury last week found that Residence Mutual Insurance Co. not only acted with malice and fraud in failing to fulfill its $220,000 policy with Robert Christopher, who was 86 at the time of the 2008 accident, but noted that its conduct was directed at a senior citizen, who is considered under California law more vulnerable than other members of the population.

"The insurance company did everything possible to try and torpedo this World War II veteran's case," said attorney Mark Geragos. "You wouldn't treat your worst enemy the way this insurance company treated this policyholder of more than 50 years. This should be a message to insurance companies that you never put your interests before the interests of the insured."

Attorneys for Residence Mutual Insurance, headquartered in Irvine, could not be reached for comment.

Christopher, a longtime Hollywood character actor, and his partner, Patricia Freiling, were inside their Alcyona Drive home in January 2008 when a dump truck hauling dirt away from a nearby construction site failed to negotiate a sharp turn. The truck was turning right at a nearly 90-degree angle from steep Primrose Avenue.

The 33-foot-long truck, which held 15 tons of dirt, toppled over on its side and slammed into their residence. The impact severed a gas line, setting off an explosion. Flames and smoke quickly enveloped the house.

The pair were trapped inside for nearly 20 minutes until they were able to dislodge a sliding door, according to court records. Christopher, a Marine Corps veteran, hurt his back trying to flee, and Freiling chipped a tooth and reinjured a previously broken wrist.

Despite the trauma of the incident, co-counsel Brian S. Kabateck said Christopher believed he could rebuild his home by getting the trucking company to compensate him through its insurance while also collecting on his homeowner's policy, which he had purchased during the Eisenhower administration.

Residence Mutual not only held back payment, Geragos said, but charged Christopher for work done by an engineering firm as well as another company that charged him $20,000 to pack up his belongings for storage.

Geragos and Kabateck also successfully argued that the insurance company interfered in Christopher's lawsuit against the construction company and the city.

On Friday, after a day of deliberation and a week of trial arguments, the jury awarded Christopher a combined $8,062,850 in economic, noneconomic and punitive damages.

In addition, Christopher recovered another $450,000 from the city, which settled with him in a lawsuit over the condition of the roadway.

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