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Fire alarm failure may not be covered by insurance

July 5, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Jennifer Herwitt walked through what was once her historical craftsman home in West Hollywood. A fire destroyed much of the place, causing thousands of dollars in damages. A year later, the smell of smoke is still overwhelming.

"This was a 100-year-old historic craftsman home and because the walls were plaster the fire burned for 2 1/2 hours before anyone noticed it," she said.

Herwitt says she had a security alarm system with a fire alert feature that should have contacted the fire department in an emergency, but it didn't.

Despite the fire department being across the street and firefighters confirmed they never got a call.

"In most cases, when single family dwellings or apartments around here have central units or alarm systems or companies, yes the alarm companies will notify our dispatch," Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Fred Salmo said, adding that in this case it didn't, as far as he knew.

Attorney Bart Ring says what happened to Herwitt could happen to anyone with a security system. Ring said most security alarm contracts let the alarm company off the hook if their system fails.

"They have a limit of liability of $1,000, which is buried deep in a contract - very, very deep - that the average consumer would never be aware of or explained," Ring said.

Rick Gombar insures most of the burglar and alarm services in California and says the courts have allowed this limited liability clause in alarm contracts.

Gombar suggests alarm customers test their systems at least once a month to make sure it works before there's trouble.

Herwitt is having a tough time with her insurance company getting the home restored.

"I no longer have savings, retirement, anything," Herwitt said.

Experts suggest consumers take a good look at their contract and if they feel they need better protection, they might be able to buy a rider that increases the security company's liability. However, not all security companies offer it.

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