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When crime hits home

Special to The Times

Maria and Thomas Majcher had watched the June 7 high-speed pursuit for about 10 minutes when the familiar red garage door at the home of family friends Oscar and Edith Castellano appeared on the television screen.

“Oh, my God, he just crashed into Oscar’s house,” Thomas Majcher said.

The impact as the suspected car thief plowed into the West Hills home’s two-car garage door woke the Castellano family, forced their 2004 Dodge Dakota into a wall bordering the kitchen and caused more than $15,000 in damage. An officer at the scene advised the shaken homeowners to call their insurance carrier.

From bullet holes to broken doors, when private property becomes a backdrop for police activity, homeowners are usually left to pay to fix the damage themselves or claim the expense on their homeowners insurance after covering the deductible. But there are exceptions.

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The difference between a costly homeowner headache and a claim the city will pay hinges on whether there is police or sheriff negligence, said Dee Yarnall, a lawyer with Mardirossian & Associates Inc., a Los Angeles firm that specializes in civil rights violations and police misconduct.

“If you can say the police should have done something differently,” she said, then the city might pay. “But if it’s just a mistake, it’s part of the price of crime in society.”

For example, Yarnall said, if an informant believed to be credible tells police there is a methamphetamine house in the neighborhood and officers blow down the door and it’s not the right house, there’s no negligence.

Although the California Constitution requires payment of compensation for private property taken or damaged for public use, the California Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that the government should not be held liable for damage that occurs as a consequence of lawful and reasonable actions by the police.

“If it turns out to be the wrong house because they got wrong information, then you’ve got a nightmare happening,” said Beverly Hills attorney Marvin Wolf. But, he added, “when it is absolutely clear that they made a mistake, the city will fix it.”

Paying for a mistake

In August 2001, Phil Lombardi’s Stevenson Ranch home was caught in a shootout between federal agents, sheriff’s deputies and a neighbor. Shots were fired at the Lombardi residence when it was mistakenly thought to be the source of gunfire. Lombardi, his wife and their newborn daughter hid on the floor of their master bathroom until they were evacuated.

The five-bedroom, 2,500-square-foot home received an estimated 119 bullet strikes and about $30,000 in damages. After the incident, the Sheriff’s Department sent out a civil litigation team to canvass the neighborhood, see what damage people had and ask if they wanted to file claims.

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“They gave us the paperwork at the door,” said Lombardi, who filed an additional claim with his homeowners insurance. “I would only hope that other people get treated the same way we did.”

Lombardi reportedly received a $167,500 settlement from Los Angeles County for emotional damages arising from the shootout at his home. His insurance covered the property damage.

Similarly, the sheriff’s deputy who ran over Marlys Stoughton’s mailbox in August 2004 stopped to tell the La Habra resident to file a claim.

“He knocked on my door and told me he had backed into my mailbox,” Stoughton noted. “I wouldn’t have known what to do otherwise.”

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In March, the county hand-delivered a check for $538 to replace her damaged property. “It took awhile to get it done,” she noted, “but they did give me a much nicer mailbox.”

Whether involving real estate, cars or personal property, resolving legitimate claims for property damage is the focus of the civil litigation unit of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Lt. Shaun Mathers and his team follow up on cases involving private property damaged in the line of duty -- contacting homeowners, walking them through the claims process and offering settlement agreements if warranted. About a fourth of all claims filed are paid, with amounts averaging from $300 to $500.

“When an uninvolved person’s property gets damaged,” Mathers said, “we’re responsible to make good on that.”

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Lt. Paul Vernon, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department, said the city attorney considers factors such as how much influence the police had in the damage and how much burden taxpayers should incur for the actions of a criminal in reviewing claims.

No matter what the damage, filing a claim form with the city in which the incident happened is the first step to recouping a loss, attorney Yarnall said.

“When you think a government entity is involved and you don’t know who it is, file with all of them,” she advised. Also, act quickly. Federal law requires personal property claims to be filed no later than six months after the date of the incident.

“If the city turns you down and you suffered a real loss, the civil remedy always exists, even if it’s just Small Claims Court to recover your hotel costs,” Wolf said. “But once the six months has elapsed and you haven’t filed the written claim, you’re out of luck.”

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Even in clear cases of police negligence, experts recommend that homeowners protect their interests and take notes at the scene that highlight dates, times, damage and the names and phone numbers of any witnesses. Ask for a file, incident or police report number. Request a contact number. Call your homeowners insurance carrier and ask what steps to take. Get station addresses and badge numbers for police officers or sheriff’s deputies at the scene or someone in charge.

“Otherwise,” Wolf said, “you are going to spend forever trying to figure out who that was.”

In addition, document any damage with photographs or video. Keep related receipts. Get two to three written repair estimates. Stay involved and be patient. Claims can come through in a week, but some can take more than a year.

And don’t take no for an answer.

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Jeannine Cobb got a claim form at her local sheriff’s station after a patrol car damaged a small fence, some plants and several trashcans of hers while in pursuit of a suspect in March 2004. The homeowner priced replacement items online and submitted the paperwork to the county.

A few weeks later, a county representative called to ask the Temple City resident why she believed the sheriff’s department was responsible for the damage. “I told her my first clue was when I looked out of my window and saw a sheriff’s car on my lawn,” Cobb said. About two months later, representatives from the sheriff’s department delivered a check to Cobb for $92.

As a general rule, municipalities deny claims related to hotel expenses or shelter for residents shut out of their homes during a police standoff with an armed suspect, for instance.

“It’s just like if your home was in an area where there was a landslide and we shut you out for safety issues,” Mathers explained. “The government entity is not responsible for that.”

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If a damage claim is denied, residents have six months from the date of the written notice of the rejection to file a lawsuit.

But ideally, Wolf said, homeowners insurance will pay for the repairs. Covered homeowners pay the deductible and pass their additional costs onto their insurance companies, who then decide whether to pursue the responsible party. The chances of the homeowner recouping any loss by suing a suspect are remote, Yarnall added.

Still repairing house

After the suspect in the police chase crashed into his garage, Oscar Castellano filed claims with home and auto insurance providers. Stuart Wilkinson, president of the California Fair Plan Assn. in Los Angeles, which carries the Castellano’s home insurance, sent a representative to the residence to survey the damage. Claims involving police activity are handled like any loss and wouldn’t necessarily raise any red flags with an insurance company or result in increased premiums or policy cancellation, Wilkinson said.

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Even with full coverage, Castellano is still reeling from that night two months later and in the throes of the claims and repair processes.

“It’s been a nightmare for us,” Castellano said. “It’s frustrating because we didn’t ask for this to happen.”

Michelle Hofmann is a Los Angeles freelance writer. She can be reached at michelle

hofmann@earthlink.net.

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Tips on filing a claim for damages

Claim forms for property damages related to police actions within the city of Los Angeles can be filed with the city clerk and are generally reviewed by the city attorney’s office within six months of the incident. Forms are available online at www.lacity.org. Go to forms and click on “Claim for Damages.” Or visit your local police station.

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Forms relating to actions by the Sheriff’s Department should be filed with the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and can be accessed online at www.lasd.org. Go to “contact us” and click on “Claim for Damages Form.” Forms are also available at your local patrol station.

-- Michelle Hofmann


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