Federal Jury Awards Million Dollar Verdict to Business Owners Falsely Accused of Arson by Insurance Company

Portland, OR—A federal jury awarded Steve and Rena Muller damages in the amount of $1,082,500 after their insurance company refused to pay them following the loss of their auto shop business.  The Mullers’ insurance company refused to pay their insurance claim, instead accusing the Mullers of arson.  Attorneys Andrew C. Lauersdorf, Francis J. Maloney, and Scott A. MacLaren, from the Maloney Lauersdorf Reiner law firm, along with Robert Bonaparte from the Shenker & Bonaparte law firm, represented the Mullers in an eight-day jury trial against the insurance company in federal court in Portland, Oregon.  The million-dollar verdict came after a nearly five-year struggle and involved fire investigators and other experts from around the state.

The Mullers’ struggle began on November 18, 2012.  The Mullers, with their two young children, locked up their home and their auto shop next door, and hit the road from La Grande to Klamath Falls to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with friends.  Their holiday ended abruptly when they received a phone call from a neighbor reporting that their auto shop was on fire.  The Mullers, who were almost four hours away outside of Madras when they received the call, immediately turned around and headed back home.  They found their auto shop destroyed when they arrived.

When the Mullers turned to their insurance company for help, the insurance company denied the claim.  The insurance company refused to pay the Mullers for their loss, and instead accused the Mullers of committing arson, despite digital photographs, video surveillance records, and cell phone records that corroborated the Mullers’ version of events on the day of the fire and proved that the Mullers were almost four hours away from the auto shop when the fire started.

“The Mullers have been fighting this battle for four and a half years.  They were falsely accused of arson, and they have been dragged through the mud, in addition to losing their shop.  We are very happy for the Mullers and thrilled that the jury made this right,” said trial attorney Andrew C. Lauersdorf.

Catlin Gabel Mock Trial Finishes 4th in State

Two weeks after winning its regional competition over Jesuit and other schools in Washington County, Catlin Gabel’s varsity mock trial team took 4th place in the March 17-18, 2017 state competition at the United States Courthouse in downtown Portland.  The students conducted three trials of the civil case of Landry Lopez v BB’s Burgers, in which a high school student working at a local restaurant claimed they were fired for engaging in protected whistleblowing activity (reporting a theft by a fellow employee).

Catlin team members include: Sahil Nerurkar, Angela Liu, Reuben Schafir, Javin Dana, Grace Wong, Grace Masback, Neil Natarajan, Marisa Natarajan, Isabelle Zheng, and Sage Yamamoto.  The team is coached by faculty coordinator Wendy Wilkinson, along with Bob Bonaparte, Eli Coon, Tyler Francis, David Coombs, Brooke Calcagno, and Andrea Seykora.

There are eight seniors on Catlin’s varsity team, who in the past three years have finished fifth statewide (2015), second (2016), and fourth (2017).

Catlin Gabel Takes 2nd Place at the 2016 Mock Trial State Competition

2016 Catlin MT State Team

March 12, 2016. The 30th annual Oregon Mock Trial state competition was fiercely competitive this year, with eighteen high school teams traveling from as far away as Baker City to hold trials at the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse in downtown Portland. Two days and three rounds winnowed the competition down to two finalists: West Linn High School Gold Team and Catlin Gabel School. Riverdale High School came in third, and in Fourth, Lake Oswego High School.

First place was decided in a winner-take-all final round, with teams flipping a coin to decide who would represent the prosecution and the defense. The Honorable Michael H. Simon of the United States District Court presided. He was joined by Ms. Jennifer Johnson, Dean, Lewis & Clark Law School; Mr. Steve Piucci, Attorney; Ms. Susie Marcus, education consultant; and The Honorable Stacie Beckerman, U.S. Magistrate Judge. The fictional criminal case, “State of Oregon v. Bobby Dousa,” dealt with issues including the drug Rohypnol, cyber-bullying, and internet privacy.

At the end, West Linn High School was victorious, with Catlin Gabel coming in second. The West Linn team will go on to represent Oregon at the National High School Mock Trial Competition in Boise, Idaho, May 12-14, 2016.

“I was so impressed with the caliber of competition this year,” said Classroom Law Project Program Manger, Tyler Kaltenbach. “It was great to see new teams, like Jefferson High School and St. Stephen’s join us at the State competition. Each year the field seems to get stronger. We are thrilled for West Linn and wish them the best in Boise.”

Thanks to all of the teachers, coaches and parents who helped to make this year’s mock trial competition possible. We are so grateful for your support! Much thanks is owed to the State Mock Trial sponsors: Oregon State Bar, Lewis & Clark Law School, and Oregon Trial Lawyers Association. Thanks also to the Oregon Law Foundation for their support! If you would like to see photos from the event, please click here and enter the password: ClassLaw (case sensitive).

Hairstylist ‘Mr. Thom’ Wins Insurance Case Seven Years After Mansion Fire

Dec. 27, 2015 at 12:01 AM

By Nick Morgan
Mail Tribune

Hairstylist “Mr. Thom” Martin is finally able to start rebuilding his mansion on South Stage Road, seven years after it burned to the ground.

In 2008, two days prior to his 63rd birthday, “Mr. Thom” Martin’s Medford mansion burned down. This month, after a seven-year fight with his insurance company, the hairdresser can finally get on with his life.

Earlier this year, Martin and his mortgage holder were awarded about $1.6 million by Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Tim Gerking in a judgment against Martin’s insurance company, Oregon Mutual Insurance Company. The company paid up Dec. 4.

Martin said he had 921 guests confirmed for a “surprise” birthday party for himself on Saturday, July 19, 2008, at his mansion at 59 S. Stage Road, which had been assembled from four historic properties that were moved to the location. His birthday plans were dashed two days before the party when the mansion — which served as his home, salon and a bed and breakfast — caught fire.

“I had nine people here with foil on their heads,” Martin recalled of the day the fire broke out. He said those salon clients had no choice but to rinse their hair in a neighbor’s well.

A self-described “stylist to the stars,” Martin said he was “literally” sick to his stomach at the loss of items in the home he could never replace, including a Rolodex filled with celebrity phone numbers, 17 Alberto Vargas pin-up paintings and a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud from actress Connie Stevens.

It was dealing with the items that could be replaced, however, that stretched Martin’s nightmare to seven years.

Martin said insurance investigators first withheld coverage on his mansion because they suspected arson, in part because a building that was to be connected to the home burned to the ground on the property in 1999. Martin said vagrants had been occupying that structure while he was away in Texas to attend to his ailing wife.

Although the source of the mansion fire was believed to be electrical, investigators reached an “undetermined” conclusion two months after the fire because outlets at the ignition point had been destroyed. Because of that, investigators couldn’t say with certainty which object on the back deck started the blaze. Martin believes the fire stemmed from a new electrical outlet used for portable refrigeration units storing deviled eggs and other hors d’oeuvres for parties on the property.

“They wanted it to be arson,” Martin said.

He said the insurance company’s allegations and media reports harmed his reputation, and he still remembers malicious comments made about his loss.
Oregon Mutual Insurance Company later alleged that Martin’s insurance policy had been cancelled at the time of the fire. Martin said he had mortgage insurance on the home, but confusion arose because the bank that held the mortgage had sold it to another bank. The case continued back and forth, with motions and counter-motions for years without any relief from the insurance company.

His home and his livelihood were wiped out in the fire, and he said other salons were apprehensive about giving him space to work until a salon in Phoenix reached out. The change was an adjustment for a man who once styled hair for television shows such as “The Love Boat” and “The Partridge Family,” and who ran a 100-station Las Vegas salon and styled the hair of hundreds of stars, from Ginger Rogers to Cher.

“I just thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is so embarrassing,’ ” Martin said of the little Phoenix salon. He later redecorated the salon at his own expense.

For the first six months after the fire, he lived with a friend from high school and then in a fifth-wheel trailer on his property that was loaned to him.

“I just lived there for the longest time,” Martin said.

Years later, he purchased a manufactured home for the property with the $7,200 insurance payment for his totaled Rolls Royce. As his income grew again, he was able to rebuild a portion of the salon, but without insurance money he had to rebuild in fits and starts. The concrete foundation of the previous house was never removed because he couldn’t afford the excavation expense.

The turning point for Martin came a little over two years ago when local lawyer Sandra Sawyer, a client of Martin’s, suggested he contact Bob Bonaparte, a lawyer with Shenker & Bonaparte, a Portland firm specializing in insurance matters. Bonaparte reorganized the case while working with a local lawyer.

“He gave me another shot in the arm,” Martin said.
Bonaparte said Oregon Mutual litigated the case for seven years using four Portland law firms and a variety of defenses. The argument at the end of Martin’s case, according to Bonaparte, was that Martin had been late on an insurance payment and that they’d sent him notice of cancellation. Bonaparte said the insurance company violated Oregon law because business owners are entitled to a hearing before a policy is cancelled.

“I have seen countless cases where insurance companies deny coverage on a technicality,” Bonaparte said.

Bonaparte and Martin declined to discuss the specific figure awarded, but Martin said the building was insured for $1.8 million, and its contents were insured for $1.5 million. Bonaparte said that in Oregon, insurance companies accrue interest if a policyholder is later awarded a judgment.

According to court records, Gerking on June 30 awarded a judgment of $1,050,000, most of which went to Martin’s mortgage company. Martin got about $260,000, plus a share of an additional $600,000 in interest awarded by the court.The judge also ordered Oregon Mutual to pay attorney fees for Martin and his mortgage company.
“It’s wonderful,” Martin said this week. “It wasn’t fair, but I’m done.”
Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.

http://www.mailtribune.com/article/20151227/NEWS/151229744

Spring 2015 Catlin Gabel Mock Trial

Catlin Gabel Mock Trial

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The mock trial team prepares both sides of a simulated legal case against teams from other high schools. This year’s case involved a civil suit for damages by a high school teacher who claimed she was was wrongfully tasered by police while running for a MAX train. Students play the roles of lawyers and witnesses. Volunteer lawyers, educators, and judges serve as judge and jury. Catlin Gabel has won four state championships and performed well at the national level, with two students being awarded the Top Ten Attorney award. The mock trial team is coached by practicing lawyers, faculty members, and mock trial team alumni. Annual highlights include regional and state competitions, team dinners, impromptu games, and a retreat.

The Catlin mock trial team has a history of victory and success.

2001 – State champions, 17th at the national competition
2004 – State champions, 14th at the national competition
2010 – State champions, 21st at the national competition, Eli Coon named one of the top ten attorneys at the competition
2011 – State champions, 30th at the national competition, Leah Thompson named one of the top ten attorneys at the competition
2012 – All three Catlin teams placed in the top 5 at the regional competition, and two of the teams qualified for the state competition
2013 – Two Catlin teams qualified for the state competition
2014 – One Catlin team qualified for the state competition
2015 – One Catlin team qualified for the state competition, and placed 5th in state

 

Letter Published in The Oregonian Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Startling Speed and Efficiency of Government

I am a volunteer mock trial coach for Catlin Gabel. In anticipation of the Classroom Law Project’s upcoming competition, I arranged for a Tuesday practice in the Multnomah County Courthouse.

Mid-morning on Tuesday, we learned that the Courthouse was shut down. I called the General Services Administration (“GSA”), the bureaucratic behemoth that manages every government facility, and requested the use of a courtroom in the old federal courthouse. The GSA said “yes,” asking only that we provide a few photos of the students in action. In addition, the GSA arranged for the Federal Protective Service, a division of Homeland Security, to guard the building during our evening use.

The students were suitably awed upon entry into the cavernous courtroom. More than one student shyly asked permission to sit (if only fleetingly) on the judge’s celestial throne. The practice was a smashing success, and our government deserves a shout-out.

Robert E.L. Bonaparte