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Jury awards $8 million to homeowner in insurance company dispute

March 19, 2012 |  8:14 am

Insurance companies fighting policyholders over paying out claims might want to take notice of a recent case in Los Angeles in which a jury awarded more than $8 million to an elderly Hollywood Hills resident.

Robert Christopher's home was nearly destroyed when a dump truck crashed into it, ruptured a gas line and caused an explosion. But he was forced to battle his insurance company of more than 50 years when it failed to fulfill its $220,000 policy.

The jury found on Friday that Residence Mutual Insurance Co. not only acted with malice and fraud in failing to fulfill its policy, but also noted that its conduct was directed at a senior citizen, who is considered under California law to be more vulnerable than other members of the population. Christopher was 86 at the time of the 2008 accident.

"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.

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.

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-- Andrew Blankstein and Richard Winton

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