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July 16, 1997

Family's insurance-settlement dispute still smolders

PEOPLE: The DeCuollo family says Farmers' offer is far below their burned-out North Tustin home's value.

The Orange County Register

NORTH TUSTIN — As the walls, windows and counter tops are rebuilt at the Neuman house, the DeCuollo family looks across the street with envy.

The DeCuollos' custom-built home was among 10 destroyed in the Oct. 21 blaze. The charred house still stands in ruins, with burned furnishings and food scattered inside. A county inspector declared the house a nuisance last week.

''We had complaints of rodent problems,'' said Chaz Ferguson, the county's chief residential inspector.

Bonnie and Tony DeCuollo say they're battling with Farmers Insurance to resolve its claim. The family says the insurance company's $373,000 settlement offer is at least $125,000 below what the house was worth.

''We feel we have done everything we can to resolve this claim,'' said Frank Soldano, Farmers' director of catastrophe claims.

Soldano also said that out of 845 claims resulting from fires last October, this is the only one that hasn't been settled.

Last week, the DeCuollos hired a billboard maker to place this message in front of the house: ''Insured by Farmers Insurance. Still waiting to get back where we belong.'' The company's name is written inside a drawing of a lemon.

''We don't want to do this, but we're just trying to get Farmers Insurance to settle our claim,'' Tony DeCuollo said Tuesday as he watched a two-man crew nail the 8-by-10-foot sign against the house's crumbling eaves.

He then turned to face drywallers and contractors working at Gail and Ron Neuman's house. The Neumans began rebuilding in mid-March.

''What we wanted is the same thing our neighbors are getting,'' he said.

By law, policyholders are entitled to monthly updates on their case. But regular notices don't ''compel (carriers) to reach a settlement in 'x' amount of time,'' said Elizabeth Story, a spokeswoman for the American Insurance Association.

Bonnie DeCuollo said the family's updates usually gave little information.

While both sides continue to negotiate, the 3,500-square-foot house has hardly been touched.

Rotting food, cracked mirrors and a charred rosewood grandfather clock remain inside. Ash- laden clothes overflow dresser drawers.

Princess, a family cat, still lives among the ruins.

''It's turning into one big caustic mess,'' said Bonnie DeCuollo.

The DeCuollos received a registered letter from the county's building inspector July 8, saying they have 30 days to start the demolition process.

Soldano said its not Farmers' responsibility to raze the house. He said the family can either accept the offer or have an independent arbitrator decide what the house is worth.

''They could offer them less than what we offered,'' said Soldano.

Tony DeCuollo said he wants resolution soon — even if it means taking a loss.

''I've got two kids who just want to go back home,'' he said.


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