Fort Worth, couple agree on payment for mistakenly razed house

04/25/2014 2:58 PM

04/25/2014 3:00 PM

On a hot July day last summer, a Fort Worth couple stopped by their house on Lake Worth to mow, but instead found that their ranch-style home was gone, with nothing but rubble left behind.

“My wife was the first one to notice,” David Underwood, the homeowner, remembered. “I was looking down by the lake to see if it needed mowing, and she said, ‘David, the house is gone.’ I was in shock and disbelief. How can the house be gone?”

What the couple discovered is that the city mistakenly destroyed their 1,300-square-foot house in the 9700 block of Watercress Drive, an incident that lead to a $102,500 settlement with the family this week and the disciplining of several city employees.

It also lead to a comprehensive rewriting of the city’s policies to make sure it doesn’t happen again after the city found out that the same city-hired contractor also incorrectly tore down one of two homes on the same lot at 1308 Lagonda Ave. on the north side. The contractor had a work order to raze just one of the homes that had been damaged by fire.

Surprisingly, through the whole ordeal, the Underwoods have been amazingly gracious, even after they found out that the crew should have marked the condemned house next door for demolition.

“It was a mistake. I have tried to maintain all the way through this that mistakes happen,” Underwood said. “I have made mistakes in my life, and others have made mistakes. It is not making a mistake that defines you, but how you respond to it and what you do with that. I think the city has stepped forward.”

The settlement

The three bedroom home had been in the family since the 1970s, first purchased by David Underwood’s grandmother.

They were planning to remodel the home and move in, and had kept some family heirlooms, knickknacks and furniture in the house.

An antique, silver-backed mirror belonging his grandmother was among the possessions lost when the house was razed on July 12.

“We had taken it off the wall and set it down so nothing would happen to it. We were going to hang it up in the remodeled house,” David Underwood said. With the mirror, the couple also lost clothes, furniture, books and everything else inside the home.

Last year the Tarrant Appraisal District said the 1,300-square-foot, three-bedroom, one-bath home on Watercress had a market value of $122,200 market value — $82,200 in improvements and a $40,000 lot value.

Despite the city knocking down the wrong house, the Underwoods did not set out to rake the city or the contractor across the coals for the error. They never filed suit in court against the city.

Instead, they settled outside of court for an amount that is “fair as fair can be,” said Underwood.

The city agreed to pay the Underwoods $62,500, the contractor, Garrett Demolition, Inc., will pay $15,000 and the contractor’s insurance company will pay $25,000.

Chad Fillmore, a partner at Fillmore Law Firm who is representing the Underwoods, said the settlement includes the value of the home, damage to nearby landscaping and the value of the property inside the house.

The city has not received a claim for damages for the case on Lagonda Avenue case, said Bill Begley, a city spokesman.

Changes to city policy

After the wrong homes were demolished, the city halted demolitions of substandard structures and reviewed its procedures.

After that review, Code Compliance Director Brandon Bennett said it was determined that the mistakes were made at least in part because the code compliance officer who condemned the house and the environmental team responsible for getting the house ready for demolition did not go to the site together.

Now, those crews go to the site together.

“And so the policy change is to have the code officer and the supporting departments, whether fire or environmental or TPW (transportation and public works), to say, ‘This is the structure we are talking about.’ So there is not that error again,” Bennett said.

They also now include pictures of the structure and areal maps in the sign-off forms for demolition, Bennett said.

“We have triple checking,” Bennett said. “It is not only when they do the environmental assessment, but right before the demolition when they do that same checking again.”

Employees from code, transportation and public works and the planning and development departments were all disciplined for the mistake, he said.

“There were some employees that were disciplined because they could have and should have at some point in the process identified that this was the wrong process,” Bennett said.

One code supervisor was terminated after the demolition, but Bennett said that the termination was a result of multiple instances, and the demolition “was one of a number of things.”

For Underwood, the city owning up to the mess up and making these changes says a lot about Fort Worth.

“The city turned something that could have been a total disaster and dragged out for years — to me they did what they should have done. They accepted responsibility, and not only made me whole again to compensate for the house and effects inside, but they also looked and found out what happened so that it wouldn’t happen again,” he said.

Underwood said they plan to rebuild at the same spot.

This report includes information from Star-Telegram archives.

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