What you can learn from Kat Von D’s home insurance nightmare
At first glance, the lawsuit that insurance giant State Farm filed against tattoo artist and reality TV star Kat Von D seems “outrageous,” one insurance expert says.
State Farm paid $909,199 after a fire burned down the home the former “L.A. Ink” star was leasing in the Hollywood Hills.
In a lawsuit filed in late May 2012 in Los Angeles Superior Court, the insurance company alleged that Von D (real name Katherine von Drachenberg) was negligent for leaving candles unattended at the time of the fire in November 2010.
“It just so happens that State Farm was exercising their subrogation rights against a celebrity,” says Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, a nonprofit advocacy and education group for consumers.
Bach says her first reaction to the suit was outrage.
“How dare State Farm go after their insured for negligence when, in fact, that’s the very reason why people buy insurance?” Bach says. “Kat Von D didn’t mean to burn her house down. Someone just lit some candles. But she is not in a first-party relationship with State Farm. They are not suing their own (policyholder). They did not collect premiums from her.”
For renters like Kat von D, the moral of the story is to buy renter’s insurance, Bach says. A poll conducted in 2011 for the Insurance Information Institute found that just 29 percent of U.S. renters had renter’s insurance. In 2009, the annual cost of renter’s insurance averaged $184.
“It’s generally available at a very reasonable cost,” Bach says. “The cost of renter’s insurance is quite reasonable, all things considered. We encourage people to buy the insurance that is going to protect their assets.”
It’s not known whether Kat Von D carried renter’s insurance, which covers lost or damaged personal belongings but doesn’t cover structural damage.
Candles blamed for fire
In the lawsuit, California attorney Geordan Goebel, representing State Farm, wrote that the insurance company paid $909,199 to the owner of the home, Debra Dresbach. Dresbach is insured by State Farm and leased the home to von Drachenberg in November 2008, Goebel wrote.
“Explicitly set forth in this contract was von Drachenberg’s duty to use due care in her possession of the premises, and her responsibility for repairing any damage to the premises caused by von Drachenberg’s negligence,” Goebel wrote.
Goebel alleged the fire started after von Drachenberg left several candles unattended in the home. After paying Dresbach’s claim, Goebel wrote, State Farm filed the suit — under what’s known legally as subrogation — to recoup its losses from von Drachenberg.
‘Lonely little castle’ lost
Von Drachenberg couldn’t be reached for comment by phone or email. However, she did send a message to her Twitter followers: “Contrary 2 rumors – I did NOT burn my house down (I was on my book tour during the fire) and no, I did NOT kill my own cat.”
In a post on her Facebook page in January 2012, von Drachenberg wrote her “lonely little castle” burned down while she was on tour promoting her book, “The Tattoo Chronicles.”
“And it’s weird because almost everyone around me feels really bad for me,” she wrote. “I know it’s all coming from a good place, and I definitely appreciate all the thoughtful condolences, not just for my loss of ‘stuff’ but more importantly for the loss of my baby kitten, Valentine. But I’m honestly OK with it all if you gimme a chance to explain…”
State Farm spokesman Eddie Martinez says he can’t comment on the lawsuit but did confirm that von Drachenberg isn’t one of the company’s policyholders.
Although the lawsuit has attracted a good deal of media attention, Bach says this type of court case is “pretty common.”
“I don’t like the fact that (State Farm) is going after someone who lost their home and cat,” Bach says. “I don’t like them going after a person with a lawsuit like this, but it’s something they do all the time. Every insurance company has a subrogation unit, and it is part of their business operations.”
Candles and house fires
U.S. Fire Administration spokesman Tom Olshanski says people inadvertently start home fires with candles fairly often. In 2010, 2,555 people died and 13,275 were injured in 362,100 residential fires nationwide. That’s up from 2,480 deaths and 12,600 injuries in 356,200 residential fires in 2009.
Olshanski says candle-related fires happen frequently around holidays, such as Christmas.” It tends to be seasonal,” he says, “and it tends to involve unsupervised children playing with candles.”
The best way to prevent this type of fire is to give the candles plenty of space away from drapes, clothing and other flammable materials, Olshanski says, and always remember to extinguish them before going to sleep or leaving home.
“Most often, the fire occurs when the candles are forgotten,” Olshanski says. “The biggest thing is simply to make sure they are out if you are leaving the house. It’s hard to believe that a little flame on a wick can cause a total flashover of a room and all its contents in two and a half minutes. If that little flame gets outside its environment, it’s amazing what damage can be caused and how many injuries and deaths that can occur.”