Insurers make Galleria fire claims against Roseville, Placer

Documents name for first time mall employee who shut off sprinklers
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Insurance carriers for businesses suffering losses from the Oct. 21 Westfield Galleria fire are now moving millions of dollars in claims forward against Placer County and considering a similar action against the city of Roseville. Placer County supervisors voted Tuesday to reject $23 million in claims for property damage filed by six insurance carriers. Roseville is facing an even more extensive claim from the fire, which authorities estimated caused $55 million in damage. But instead of moving forward with another claim, more than 20 insurance companies have signed an agreement with the city to extend their right to initiate possible claims and litigation for another six months. Like Placer, Roseville is contending that the case would go nowhere. The carriers had until April 21 to file claims. Now they have until Oct. 21, the first anniversary of the Galleria fire. Roseville City Attorney Brita Bayless said the extension would allow the carriers to complete their review and conclude that claims and litigation would not be supported by facts or legally sustainable. At issue is an order to turn off fire-protection sprinklers that a Westfield employee said was made by either a police officer or sheriff’s deputy. Documents submitted by insurance companies in support of their claims to the county identified the employee as maintenance worker John McCormick and state he shut off the sprinkler valve at about 10:38 p.m. For the past six months, Galleria and government officials have withheld the employee’s identity. “Mr. McCormick claimed to have acted under the direction of a police officer or deputy sheriff, which is corroborated in the city of Roseville’s incident report by a UPS worker who claimed to have overheard the request,” a claim by Travelers Property Casualty Company of America states. About 161 stores at the Galleria have opened their doors again, including all anchor stores. The claims indicate that blame for the fire spreading is concentrating on the 71 minutes the sprinklers were turned off. Blame for the actual fire rests with Alexander Piggee, 24, of Sacramento. He pleaded guilty March 8 to arson and is to be sentenced July 12. He faces 10 years in prison for a fire that shut the entire mall for a week just before the start of the Christmas shopping season. Insurance carriers, who must pay out millions of dollars in claims to businesses, are now claiming negligence on the part of Roseville and Placer County. “As a result of the negligent action and communications of the Placer County sheriff officer, who cannot be identified at this time, the fire was not contained to the area of origin but instead increased in intensity and spread through the mall, causing extensive damage,” the Travelers claim states. But Bayless said cities and counties have established immunities to protect them from lawsuits that would second-guess emergency responses, with the benefit of hindsight. “The law recognizes and respects the pressures of the instantaneous decision-making required in an emergency under real and threatened danger, often limited by imperfect knowledge and communications,” Bayless said. Bayless said she expects the insurance carriers to come to the realization over the next six months that “even the wildest allegations regarding the response” would not void the legal protections the city has. Maryellen Peters, Placer County deputy CEO, said the rejection recommendation by staff to the Board of Supervisors was based on the timing of the Placer County Sheriff’s Office response. “The Placer County Sheriff didn’t arrive and was not contacted to respond until 10:55 a.m.,” Peters said. “The sprinklers were turned off at 10:38 a.m. The Placer County Sheriff’s Office didn’t make an order.” ---------------------------------------------------- Fire losses add up Here are some examples of claims made by individual Galleria businesses, according to documents filed by insurance carriers with Placer County: Charming Shoppes $1.45 million Charlotte Russe $820,000 Popcornopolis $137,000 Anne Taylor $405,000 The Yankee Candle Company $675,000 American Eagle Outfitters $2.4 million Trans World Entertainment $2 million Genesco $990,000 Learning Express $249,000 Artifacts $173,000 Texas West Barbecue $43,000 Select Comfort $255,000 Bags & Baggage $515,000 Hallmark $526,000 Source: Claim documents filed with Placer County