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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.