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This palm tree touching power lines is blamed for a house fire. It has been removed.
This palm tree touching power lines is blamed for a house fire. It has been removed. / news-press.com file photos
Emergency workers work the scene of a house fire on SW 8th Court in Cape Coral in November 2009. / news-press.com file photo

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Carl Coltellino was in his Cape Coral garage on Wednesday, fixing ruined possessions and generally continuing to put his life back together three years after a fire nearly destroyed his canalfront home and turned his life upside down.

“I just work on this constantly,” Coltellino said, sounding exasperated. “It’s going to go on for years.”

Coltellino, along with his wife and two daughters, escaped the blaze unhurt, but had to move from house to house until finally returning home last year.

Meanwhile, lawyers across the state have been trying to sort out a handful of potential multimillion-dollar lawsuits that will determine from whose pocket the damages are paid.

At the heart of the matter is this question: Who was responsible for trimming a palm tree that brushed up against a transformer, causing a short in the electrical panel in Coltellino’s garage that sparked the fire?

The defendants include Lee County Electric Cooperative, the city of Cape Coral and Asplundh Tree Expert Co.

“It’s city property, with an easement to be maintained by LCEC, and LCEC hires Asplundh to cut the trees,” Coltellino said.

To make matters more aggravating, he said, he and his neighbors called the electric utility over and over to complain about power outages caused by the tree, whose fronds stretched higher than the utility pole it stood next to in a grassy island in the middle of the cul-de-sac on Southwest Eighth Court. But nothing was done, he said.

“It’s not like an act of God and who ya gonna blame,” he said. “This was LCEC who knew about it. They knew about it ahead of time.”

LCEC spokeswoman Karen Ryan said she couldn’t comment on the case because of pending litigation. Lawyers for Asplundh and Cape Coral didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Carson Spitler, who lives a few houses down, agreed that the palm tree, which has since been removed, seemed to cause a lot of problems.

“It was a pretty common occurrence to see that tree smoking down there,” Spitler said. “I don’t understand why someone didn’t cut it down.”

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And he said he’s worried about a similar scenario developing across the street from his home, where the branches of a tree have begun to swallow another transformer, prompting a power outage about a month ago. LCEC repaired the issue, he said, and trimmed the branch that triggered it, but left the rest intact.

“It’s not a good situation,” he said. “As a matter of fact, it’s downright dangerous.”

Ryan said LCEC receives about 1,200 tree-trimming requests a month for its 8,000 miles of power lines. Often, though, the trees are on private property and the responsibility of the homeowner, she said.

“We already spend millions of dollars trimming trees that are our responsibility,” she said. “We could not afford to be able to go on everybody’s property and trim their trees for them.”

But David Bierman, a North Miami lawyer who is representing Coltellino in two lawsuits he has filed against LCEC and American Southern Home Insurance Co. — which insured his damaged motor home — said a better system to manage trees affecting power lines should be developed, because lives are at stake.

“In this case, we’re lucky, no one was injured,” Bierman said. “(In) fires, people get hurt, unfortunately. They don’t want to have one of those. Then it’s really going to be sad.”

In what could be the biggest lawsuit of the bunch, Universal Insurance Company of North America has filed suit against Cape Coral, LCEC and Asplundh, seeking reimbursement for the $909,000 it paid Coltellino for his claim, as well as costs.

On Monday, Cape Coral’s City Council agreed to let a lawyer hired by LCEC’s insurer, Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange, represent its interests in upcoming hearings.

“LCEC has denied any negligence or misconduct in the operation of its electrical lines but has agreed to defend and indemnify the city in the lawsuit,” City Attorney Dolores Menendez told council members.

Dean Cavalieri, a public adjuster with Accurate Insurance Management Services who worked with Coltellino on this case, said Coltellino is still out a substantial amount of money his insurers didn’t cover or haven’t paid out. And until responsibility is determined, he may not see another cent.

Although the experience has been hard on Coltellino, Cavalieri said the two were able to joke about one thing: for more than a year after the incident, the tree remained before finally getting the axe early last year.

“It’s like nobody wanted to touch the tree,” he said, chuckling. “I said, ‘I know why… the guy who cuts that tree owns this claim.’”

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