East St. Louis woman claims insurer was racist, sexist in accusing her of arson

Kelly Holleran Aug. 31, 2009, 9:54am

An East St. Louis woman is suing her insurance company, alleging it accused her of arson and would not pay her money for damages she incurred after her home caught on fire.

Dorressa Braggs claims she was sleeping at her sister's Belleville apartment when a fire broke out at her East St. Louis home on March 28, 2008, at about 6:56 a.m.

Neighbors reported suspicious activity occurring at Braggs's home during the night of the fire, according to the complaint filed Aug. 21 in St. Clair County Circuit Court.

"Defendant-Insurer vexatiously and unreasonably failed and refused to investigate by interviewing the Plaintiff-Insured's next door neighbor on the right, to the west, about her having called the East St. Louis Police Department upon her seeing five young men on the Plaintiff-Insured's back porch prior to the fire," the complaint says.

Even East St. Louis police reports indicate a gang of youths were standing with guns at the time of the fire, the suit states.

At the time of the fire, Braggs's home located at 2913 Renshaw Ave. was insured by Safeco Insurance Company of Illinois, according to the complaint.

Braggs claims she timely submitted a claim to Safeco and even sat through a more than four hour long examination under oath on May 9, 2008.

Despite Bragg's actions and her timely payment of $1,377 in premiums, Safeco denied her coverage, refused to pay insurance proceeds and terminated the temporary housing it was providing for Braggs, according to the complaint. The company blamed Braggs for setting the fire, the complaint says.

"Defendant-Insurer vexatiously and unreasonably investigated arson as a mere possibility, but then investigated and looked only for clues to support its flawed and false arson-by-the-insured theory, to the exclusion of other theories supporting coverage for this fire property damage loss," the suit states. "Defendant-Insurer vexatiously and unreasonably conducted very sparse interviews in and around Plaintiff-Insured's neighborhood, with its investigator Tom Recklein being told good, positive and favorable facts about Plaintiff-Insured Dorresa Braggs, then he went back to some of her neighbors and tried to get them to change their statements to be bad, negative and unfavorable to Plaintiff-Insured, in order to fit Defendant-Insured's flawed and false theory of 'arson-by-the-insured.'"

Braggs says Safeco pegged her for arson because she is a black, widowed woman.

"Defendant-Insurer's attitude toward Plaintiff-Insured was recalcitrant, biased, racist, sexist, vexatious and unreasonable," the suit states.

Braggs claims she is not the only one who has been forced to instigate a lawsuit in order to recover damages from Safeco.

"Defendant has engaged in activities, including denying coverage for covered claims, particularly fire insurance property damage claims, which result in compelling policyholders, including the Plaintiff-Insured herein to institute lawsuits to recover amounts due under its policies by the Insurer offering substantially less than the amounts ultimately recovered in lawsuits brought against it by its Insureds," the complaint says.

Because of the insurance company's refusal to pay for damages, Braggs has sustained property damages of at least $272,999.83, which includes $139,854.86 for dwelling, $91,374.57 for contents, $9,600 for loss of use of her burned residence, $10,600 for destroyed landscaping, $5,160 for debris removal and clean up and $400 for loss of food in the refrigerator, the suit states.

In the two-count suit, Braggs is seeking the money she says Safeco owes her, plus five percent pre-judgment interest, which has accumulated to $15,734.40 as of her filing, post-judgment interest at the maximum rate allowed by law and all other costs. She is also seeking $60,000 for statutory penalties and attorneys' fees of $90,999.94.

She will be represented by Mark M. Silvermintz of The Kunin Law Offices in East St. Louis and William S. Daniel of Daniel Law Offices in Belleville.

St. Clair County Circuit Court case number: 09-L-443.

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