By Will Schmitt | Source |
Inger Simonsen didn’t have a car when she was living in Santa Rosa’s Journey’s End mobile home park in October 2017. The night of the Tubbs fire, she had to be roused by her son and daughter-in-law, who lived a half a block away in the park. They picked her up and followed the “river of cars” to the safety of San Francisco.
The trio watched on television as the wind-whipped wildfire advanced through northern Santa Rosa, bearing down on Kaiser Permanente’s hospital complex. On its north side was Journey’s End, at 3575 Mendocino Avenue. There, in the early hours of Oct. 9, the fire would destroy 116 of the 160 units and kill two residents.
The two homes belonging to to Simonsen and her son, Oliver, and his wife, Carma, survived, but they were uninhabitable. The fire incinerated the park’s electrical and gas systems and irreparably contaminated the well supplying water to the community.
A fence went up around the property, and it remained there long after the ruins were hauled away.
“I think we all sort of left our hearts in Santa Rosa when we were displaced,” Inger Simonsen, 75, said.
“And you don’t think in that moment, ’Well, at least we have insurance.’ You don’t,” Carma Simonsen, 62, said. “Because stuff doesn’t matter. The stuff that mattered could not be recovered.”
Fortunately, their homes, Oliver’s work and their cats all survived. But unlike most of their neighbors whose units were lost but who were then compensated by their insurers, a small group of Journey’s End residents including the Simonsens were left in limbo: No place to return and no insurance money to move on.
Michigan-based Foremost Insurance Company, which insured 20 Journey’s End households, including the Simonsens, claimed that the surviving units had not been physically damaged to the point of destruction. Though the homes had been deemed uninhabitable and couldn’t legally be occupied, they were still standing.
Foremost declined to provide those tenants with loss payouts that they thought they were owed under their home insurance policies.
Ten of the affected households banded together in a lawsuit filed against Foremost in the Northern California-based U.S. District Court in November 2019. Just last month it led to a $686,786 settlement approved by a federal judge who sided with the plaintiffs, including Inger and Carma Simonsen.
Inger now has a car, a blue Hyundai Elantra that she leased Friday with her settlement proceeds. She lives in Hemet, a small city in Riverside County, and the vehicle will give her some freedom to see Oliver and Carma, who moved to Long Beach.
The settlement means more than a car, of course. It means vindication, said Inger, who moved to Journey’s End a few years before the fire. She’d come to California in a move to Los Angeles as a younger woman to pursue an acting career. For a time, she said, she dated Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger.
“I feel like I’ve been made whole,” she said. “I felt like I had been abused, and the abuser has been held accountable,” she said of the settlement.
An attorney for Foremost, which is under the Farmers Insurance umbrella, referred questions to a Farmers spokesman who did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
The resolution was long overdue, said Kendall Jarvis, a disaster relief attorney for Legal Aid of Sonoma County, which helped represent the Journey’s End residents.
One of plaintiffs, Theresa Udall, died shortly after the settlement became certain, she said. Other plaintiffs have struggled to find stable housing as a result of the delay.
“This resolution took more than three years and that never should have happened,” Jarvis said. “We shouldn’t have had to fight so hard for something the plaintiffs were entitled to from the beginning.”
The plaintiffs contended that even though their units weren’t destroyed by the Tubbs fire, they were not habitable and were legally off limits for occupation. Their insurance policies covered “total loss” of the dwellings, and the plaintiffs were never able to live at Journey’s End again after the fire, their attorneys argued.
The mobile home park was formally closed in January 2020 and a development partnership is now proceeding with plans for more than 500 homes at the site, including at least 160 affordable units for seniors to replace the lower income units lost in the blaze.
In the prolonged legal fight, Foremost argued that the loss of the homes did not amount to a “physical loss” and as such should not be covered. Plaintiffs were claiming coverage not for damage to their homes but for damage to other people’s homes — the 116 that burned in the Tubbs fire — Foremost argued.
Presiding over the case was U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who also oversaw the criminal probation of PG&E, which separately agreed to settle with victims of the 2017 and 2018 wildfires for $13.5 billion.
He saw the ruined mobile home park as integral to the question of habitability of the remaining Journey’s End units.
“The fire destroyed that infrastructure, such that the sewage, electricity, water, and gas did not physically run, as it previously had, in the unit itself,” Alsup wrote Dec. 4 in his 10-page ruling, an order that tipped the legal balance in favor of the settlement. “The fire directly, suddenly, and accidentally destroyed plaintiffs’ homes by destroying the essential infrastructure for the entire park.”
“These victims have suffered enough,” Alsup wrote, “and Foremost has added to this suffering.”
The order and the settlement amount to a “pretty big deal,” Jarvis said. Not only did the former Journey’s End residents fight for more than three years, the case’s resolution highlights a legal sea change in interpreting the law as it pertains to coverage of lost homes, he said.
“I know this decision will help our clients and I am hopeful that it will also help other mobile or manufactured homeowners who face this kind of situation moving forward,” Jarvis said.
Carma Simonsen was singing the praises of Jarvis and Legal Aid on Friday.
“This is very much a silver lining and very unexpected,” Simonsen said.
The settlement helped restore her retirement fund, which she had partially raided to relocate after the fire. She and Oliver are contemplating a move to a tiny home in San Jacinto, just north of Inger’s home.
While Carma looks forward to her days as a sunbird — living in a warm southern climate in the winter and traveling north in the summer to escape the heat — she ruled out a return to Santa Rosa, citing the trauma of the area’s run of wildfires.
“I love Wine Country, I love Sonoma, and it’s very heartbreaking,” she said, “but I can’t deal with the constant threat of evacuation.”