Small number of fire victims included in city settlement

The Dicksons’ 3,200-square-foot home was one of six homes on Garner Court that was a complete loss in the Steiner Ranch Labor Day weekend fires of 2011.

Don Dickson

Four Points News

On Dec. 1, the Austin City Council approved a payment of up to $6.78 million to settle a lawsuit related to the 2011 Labor Day weekend fires in Steiner Ranch, which destroyed 23 homes and caused the death of Travis County Deputy Constable Kevin Aigner.

But the majority of the settlement money – $6.425 million – is not going to the homeowners who lost their homes but to various insurance carriers. Only $150,000 will go directly to a small number of fire victims, though how the money will be distributed is not clear.

“I do not have details about how the amount with be distributed among the plaintiffs,” said Meghan Riley, litigation division chief for the city of Austin.

Brett Burlison, a California-based attorney representing the plaintiffs, did not respond to a request for comment.

While 23 homes were lost in the fire — which was determined to be caused by Austin Energy power lines — only a small number of homeowners were part of the settlement. According to publicly-available court records from the case, only six homeowners and Aigner’s widow were part of the lawsuit against the city.

Don Dickson, 68, and his wife, Shirley, lost their home in the fire, but were unaware that there was even a lawsuit against the city, though he does remember being approached by an attorney soon after the fire.

This is the Dicksons’ newly-rebuilt home on Garner Court, on the same lot as their home that was destroyed in the September 2011 Steiner Ranch fires. The Dicksons were not a part of the lawsuit against the city.

“In our mind, we thought that any money from a lawsuit would go to the insurance company,” Dickson said. “It never dawned on us that we might be paid for our trouble.”

The Dicksons’ 3,200-square-foot home was one of six homes on Garner Court that was a complete loss. Dickson said the worst part was losing all their wedding photos, their son’s baby photos, items they had inherited from their parents and memorabilia from his two tours in Vietnam.

“But you finally come to realize, it’s just stuff,” he said. “We have each other; we have a better home (now) than the home we lost in the fire.”

Fortunately, the Dicksons had good insurance coverage. Don Dickson said their insurance company, Safeco, went beyond their expectations. In less than two weeks, they received a check in the mail and Safeco leased them a furnished home in Steiner Ranch.

“We lived there free except for utilities,” Dickson said. “They never questioned our claim.”

The Dicksons now live in a newly-rebuilt home on the same street.

“We had enough to build a beautiful new custom home,” Dickson said. “We got everything we wanted and then some.”

Norma Harais, another homeowner whose home was damaged in the fire, said she, as well as many other victims she spoke to, also did not know anything about the city’s settlement.

“I can’t find a single fire victim who knows anything about it or is receiving any compensation,” Harais said. “I’ve had people ask me if we were going to benefit from this settlement but like most other fire victims, our family did not choose to be a part of a lawsuit against anyone. My husband and I personally don’t feel there was negligence so wouldn’t feel right benefitting from this. It’s just one of those unfortunate things that happen; so, with help from God and your community, you pick yourself up and move on.”