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A year after Sayre Fire, Oakridge residents still fighting insurance company

After the fire, Gary Rivera thought he would live in his rental trailer for four months.  He's been there for 13 months, and he's still unsure of when his claim will be resolved.
After the fire, Gary Rivera thought he would live in his rental trailer for four months. He's been there for 13 months, and he's still unsure of when his claim will be resolved.
Jackson Musker

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Last November, the Sayre Fire swept through Oakridge Mobile Home Park in Sylmar, destroying almost 500 homes. It was Los Angeles' biggest fire-related loss since 1961. Half of the park's residents were too devastated by the event — or too wary of wildfires — and decided to move out. But many of those who want to return to Oakridge haven't been able to, and they blame their insurance company.

One hundred new mobile homes have gone up at Oakridge this year, but reminders of the fire are everywhere: exposed foundations, scorched street signs, empty lot after empty lot.

Oakridge resident Gary Rivera's future home stands alone on a block of the scarred landscape. It’s perched on pylons like a ship in drydock — unfinished and uninhabited. He can't afford to finish the installation until he receives more money from his insurer.

"There’s no skirting on it, so you can see right through it," he says. It also lacks a driveway, an outdoor kitchen, landscaping — all features that his old home had, and that his insurance policy entitles him to. "I didn’t know I’d have to fight them to get the money I’ve been paying my premium for."

Since May, Rivera has been at odds with York Claims Service — the company that handles claims for his insurer, New Hampshire. New Hampshire, in turn, is part of the insurance giant AIG.

Rivera’s policy entitles him to amount that it takes to replace a home like his old one, up to his policy limit of $405,000. Since he puts the replacement cost value (RCV) at $465,000, he expects the policy limit. York has told him he should receive $201,000.

Rivera and his partner considered the mobile home a lifetime investment. "We bought it to die in," Rivera says. "We weren’t going to move...[so] we put $90,000 into the house. Our upgrades are nowhere."

Dissatisfied with the $201,000 quote, Gary procured estimates from other mobile home vendors, but York rejected them. He's since lost track of how many adjusters he's dealt with.

"I’d have to resend [documents] and they’d say 'I’ll look at it and give you a call back.' But I didn’t get a call back....I got a new adjuster."

The California Department of Insurance has received more than 100 complaints about New Hampshire from Oakridge residents. Deputy insurance commissioner Tony Cignarale says that since New Hampshire insured about 75% of the homes at Oakridge, it follows that their complaint totals would be so high. Still, many of Gary Rivera’s issues are not at all uncommon in the other complaints…including the multiple adjusters.

Cignarale explains the legality of the practice: "The law is pretty clear: once a third adjuster within a six month period is assigned to your case, the insurance company is obligated to provide a summary of your entire claim to you and your new adjuster."

Cignarale declined to comment as to whether the CDI would conduct a "Market Conduct Exam" — the state's systemic review of a given insurance incident — to assess whether New Hampshire's policyholders have suffered from a pattern or practice of wrongdoing.

When told of its policyholders' dissatisfaction, New Hampshire Parent Company AIG declined to comment and said all “claims questions” should be directed to York Claims Services, which also declined interviews but issued this statement:

We are committed to handling every claim professionally, ethically and fairly…. It is our policy to respect the privacy of our customers and claimants and not discuss the specifics of individual claims.

In October, New Hampshire hired a law firm to investigate Rivera’s claim. The first letter from the attorneys took him by surprise: "They want me to see if I’m lying, I guess." Rivera had already made sworn statements about his losses. Also, his neighbors in the park had submitted eyewitness accounts to his adjusters in support of his claims. Gary was a frequent host of parties and backyard barbecues, and his neighbors had the run of the house. "I had nothing to hide."

Rivera's claim may be exceptional — his policy limit was high, and his home was luxurious — but his plight isn't: unresolved claims issues have slowed or halted several journeys back into Oakridge.

A few miles west of the park, mobile home salesperson Nikki Todd sits at a consulting table at Modern Mobile Homes. She hopes to sell a home to Bobby Williams, an Oakridge resident who says multiple adjusters are under-valuing his claim.

Todd flips through his file. "We’ve been through their estimate and it's missing $50,000 worth of stuff. Custom painting, crown molding, the sales tax..." she says. "This is how they get people to settle for less."

Oakridge residents Perry and Tobey Vozzello were much closer to the finish line — they'd just about wrapped up their claim — when they received a letter from New Hampshire attorneys requesting that they give sworn testimony about their actions.

"I was mad," Perry said. "They gave me no indication (what) they were looking for." His wife, Tobey, agreed. " I was furious. It took us until July to get paid, from November. I was like 'leave us alone already.'"

The New Hampshire insurance policy reserves the right to ask policyholders to state their claims under oath. But, last week, the California Department of Insurance stepped in to aid the Vozzellos and Rivera and gave New Hampshire an ultimatum: settle the disputes within 28 days, or they’ll have to go to state-sponsored mediation. That decision is non-binding, so the two parties could meet in court anyway.

Gary Rivera is working with a lawyer to figure out his options. In the meantime, he waits in a rental trailer — a 300 square foot hitch-up parked behind a friend’s house. For a year, he's shared it with his partner and some of the only things saved from the fire: his dog and his bird. He stoops in the doorway, gestures around the trailer, and laughs.

“This is home sweet home.”