August 01, 2009 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
“Mr. Beaver, I am 78 and my fiancee is 79,” Connie’s e-mail began. “He has gotten himself into a legal mess. Can I get some advice for him on saving his house?
Finding love and companionship at any age is what life should be all about, but something about Connie’s e-mail seemed odd. Why was it from her, and not from her 79-year-old future husband? Why did she want to discuss this with me and not him?
I e-mailed right back: “I’m here at the office, call now.”
Within seconds, the phone rang and it was Connie. I would soon discover that my hunch of something being odd was correct.
“Louis and his son were in a little accident last year, and it has us both concerned,” she began.
“What kind of an accident was it? How old is his son?” I inquired.
“Well, his boy is 50. They got hurt fixing an old building. His son spent two months in the hospital. But they’re fine now. Louis is worried about being sued — by his son,” she added.
“Can you put him on the phone?” I asked.
“Sure, but you’re going to wind up yelling at him, because he can’t come to the point,” Connie replied.
“Put him on, anyway,” I insisted.
Our conversation started out with great difficulty and only got worse as he was not only a poor historian, but revealed enormous issues with basic judgment. But as I had the time, I just let him talk and within minutes, nearly fell out of my chair picturing what had happened to him and his son. Here’s a summary of what he told me:
“I was an insurance broker, owned my own building, and retired about 20 years ago. The office has remained empty. I began getting some really high offers for it in 2005 — but I hung out for more — and then the market just crashed, as you know,” he related.
“The roof was rotted, so last year, my son and I decided to do our own roof repairs. He drives a taxi but spent one summer when he was in high school working for a roofer, so I figured we could do a good job ourselves and save a bunch of money. I hired him to work on the roof with me and pay him what he would lose in not driving the cab for two weeks. I didn’t think there was that much to replacing a roof,” he added.
“Sonny is kind of a big boy, always had a weight problem, and must be about 350 pounds, but I’m pretty skinny,” he proudly added.
“We were tearing shingles off and everything was going really well, when, suddenly, a big hole opened up where my boy was standing. I grabbed him, but we both fell straight through to the floor.
“He broke both legs, one arm, and was nearly scalped by something in the attic, but after two months in the hospital, made a good recovery. His wife’s medical insurance paid some of the bills, but I got a letter from a lawyer asking about my workers compensation insurance and threatening to sue me. That’s why we’re calling — how can I protect my assets?” Certainly Louis would keep the building insured, right? Wrong.
“It’s kind of expensive having insurance on a vacant building, and I didn’t want to spend the money.”
Did he have any form of business insurance? Something? Anything? And why was it important to know?
The answer is that by hiring his son for help with the roof, an employer-employee relationship might have created. This requires workers compensation insurance to cover any injuries, or to be financially strong enough to be self-insured.
Did Louis know that?
“Sure did, but who’d ever think your son would sue you?” he replied.
Hospital bills were well over $300,000.
There were in fact several letters that Louis had received, from insurance companies, hospital collections offices, and the workers compensation attorney hired by his son’s family. Were he wealthy, it might be possible to negotiate with all the players in this developing drama. I asked him what he owns.
“That building, my house worth maybe $100,000, Social Security, and about $20,000 in the bank — that’s all,” he replied.
“Then, Louis, you need to see a lawyer — possibly, three lawyers:
“A workers compensation attorney who represents business owners, and a bankruptcy attorney as soon as possible, as you are going to be sued, by whom is the question. Your son might file for workers compensation benefits, and if it is found that he qualifies, the Uninsured Employers Fund could easily get after you as well to recover any funds they pay for your son’s treatment rehabilitation or permanent injury.
“Your need to consult with a family law attorney to understand your rights, and especially what happens if you and Connie get married — what risks does she face if there are judgments against you. Believe me, this is as serious as a heart attack, Louis,” I stressed.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.