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Seeing Writing on Wall, Farmers Insurance Settles

By Paul Elias

Farmers Insurance Co. and its outside counsel, Crosby, Heafey, Roach & May, took two bad beatings totaling $30.4 million in Los Angeles Superior Court recently.

On Monday, the insurance company agreed to pay the homeowners of a San Fernando Valley condominium complex $20 million. The company made the payment to stave off a punitive damage trial after a jury on Thursday determined Farmers acted in bad faith with the homeowners after they filed damage claims following the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

On Thursday, the jury awarded the homeowners $4 million for actual damage and agreed with the plaintiffs that Farmers should pay punitive damages for acting with "malice, fraud and oppression" in handling the claims. Instead of exposing itself to the whim of an already angry jury during the punitive phase, Farmers decided to cut its losses and settle the case for a total of $20 million.

The plaintiffs, who were represented by Los Angeles' Bernie Bernheim and Richard Friedman of Anchorage, Alaska's Friedman, Rubin & White, were greatly assisted by the testimony of Kermith Sonnier. Farmers fired Sonnier in 1997 after he examined the damaged condo complex.

He testified that Farmers pressured him and other claims adjusters to low-ball policyholders, including the plaintiffs represented by Bernheim and Friedman, in the wake of the Northridge earthquake. Sonnier said Farmers fired him after he refused to comply.

On Feb. 23, a Los Angeles Superior Court jury awarded Sonnier $9 million in punitive damages for wrongful termination. That was in addition to the nearly $1.5 million the jury awarded him earlier for compensatory damages.

Farmers said it intends to appeal the Sonnier decision.

Bernheim said Farmers refused to settle the case for $3.3 million a year after he filed Nordhoff Town Homes v. Farmers Group Inc., BC188792.

"They wouldn't take us seriously," Bernheim said.

"The track record of these types of cases isn't a good one," said Kurt Peterson, a partner in the L.A. office of Crosby, Heafey. "But we thought we had a good one here."

Peterson said that Farmers had paid the condo owners $2.5 million to repair damage. And even though the owners argued that that figure was far less than what they were entitled, Farmers hoped it could prove to the jury it acted in good faith.

"These cases in front of a downtown Los Angeles jury are tough. They all lived through the Northridge earthquake," Peterson said. Once the jury came back with its compensatory verdict, the decision was made rather quickly to settle, Peterson said.

Even while the jury deliberated for three days last week, Farmers saw the writing on the wall.

In dramatic fashion, Bernheim said he and Friedman rejected a proposal Thursday -- while the jury was still deliberating -- that would have guaranteed the plaintiffs a minimum of $5 million and a maximum of $14 million, depending on the verdict.

Five minutes after the defendants handed Bernheim the piece of paper with the proposal on it, a buzzer went off in the courtroom, indicating the jury had reached a verdict.

Commissioner Emily Elias -- who presided over the trial by stipulation -- told the plaintiffs she would hold the verdict for another 20 minutes to allow the plaintiffs to consider the offer.

"But we said 'stick it' and turned them down," Bernheim said.


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