It's been a long road for the people at American Legion Post 17 in Edgewood to get their building back up and running after the horrific blizzard that rocked the East Coast in February 2010. Dealing with losing their meeting space and source of revenue, however, has had to take a back burner for legionnaires because of ongoing legal battles.
More than two years have passed since the legion took out a new insurance policy, had its meeting place and second home fall under the massive amount of snow, found out they were underinsured and then had no way of paying for unforeseen construction costs.
Post 17 filed a lawsuit in Harford County Circuit Court Sept. 22 against the insurance company, Harford Mutual, and the insurance agent, Robert Armetta, on counts of negligence, and the contractors, Burton Pfund, Inc., who were commissioned to build the new legion post, on one count of negligence and one of accounting.
Since the building collapsed, legion members have struggled to re-open and, more importantly, keep their extended family together.
Seven members banded together to establish a building committee in charge of legal matters, finances, volunteers and getting the word out that they desperately need help. While they remain optimistic, post commander Ed McCann, first vice commander Dave Clark, second vice commander John Bloss, finance director George Schmidt, post historian Earl "Buzz" Marsh, judge advocate Charlie Wollenweber and Sons of the American Legion commander Keith Sandlass are afraid they're running out of time and money to get their building back before they lose it for good.
It all started a few months before the 2010 snowstorm when, Wollenweber explained, the group reinsured the building with Harford Mutual after attending an American Legion conference where the company was soliciting new business.
According to lawsuit documents, the Legion " alleges that its insurance agent, Robert C. Armetta, from Harford General Insurance Agency (HGI) failed to procure sufficient insurance for the building because the insurance coverage was based on improperly calculated measurements taken by Mr. Armetta."
The lawsuit goes on to say, "The Plaintiff further alleges that the incorrect measurement resulted in insurance coverage for the building of only $750,000. Edgewood American Legion Post 17 asserts that a correct calculation would have resulted in building coverage of over $1 million."
"[Harford Mutual] issued a policy as requested by the American Legion in exact accordance to their specifications and paid everything in the specified limits," executive vice president and general council for the insurance company, John Spielberger, said recently when asked about the case. "Apparently — don't know for a fact — the Legion claims they didn't know how big their building was and signed [the application] without confirming that's how big it was, and the agent should have to pay because they mis-measured it."
Spielberger, who said he's a veteran himself, called the legal dispute a "gentleman's disagreement," then added, "If there was something I could do to make this easier for them, I would do it."
According to court documents, Harford Mutual, as well as the insurance agent, have both filed motions with Harford County Circuit Court to dismiss the case. The Legion then filed oppositions, which tell the court why the post believes the case shouldn't be dismissed. All sides are waiting to hear the court's ruling.
"The fact of the matter is they were the ones who submitted the specifications," Spielberger said.
Not so, according Alex Brown, attorney for the Edgewood American Legion.
"The point is the insurance agent and company made a mistake, and instead of owning up to their mistake they're pointing the finger at the customer," he said recently when asked about the case.
Brown said he feels confident the court will decide to proceed with the case. If it is dismissed, he added, the legion will appeal. An administrative complaint has also been filed with the Maryland Insurance Administration, the state agency which regulates the insurance companies. Brown expects to receive a response from the administration in the next week or two.
"Our goal in this is just to try to get the defendants to do the right thing," he said. "That's all we want."
In the meantime, the legion began to build a smaller building with money from the insurance company. People also donated money and supplies and volunteered for odd jobs. Everything was set for the building to be worked on.
The legion had $840,000 for construction of the new building. But, the lawsuit stated, "Post 17 was subsequently informed by the Harford County Government that applicable codes required a sprinkler fire extinguisher system to be installed, resulting in a significant increase in the cost of the reconstruction of over $125,000."
"You can't borrow money," Wollenweber said. It is in the legion's charter that the organization isn't allowed to take out financial loans. With the building's construction at a standstill, they were losing money from room rentals that had been booked throughout the year, but had to be canceled after the blizzard.
"This isn't a nightclub or anything. This is for veterans," Sandlass commented. "With our war now, they need a place to come."
As the building stands, it's roughly 85 percent complete. Floor and ceiling tiles need to be re-installed, appliances and fixtures need to be put in place, a few walls are still missing and siding on the front of the building has yet to be put up. Huge boxes with un-opened kitchen appliances sit in the empty hall that, as the committee pointed out, will have their warranties expire before they're even hooked up.
While the situation looks bleak, the legion hasn't lost hope.
"We're willing to work with anyone who's willing to donate time, materials, anything," Sandlass said. He added that several volunteers and companies have already helped a great deal, including Home Depot, Ferguson Bath and Kitchen in Aberdeen, Harford Carpet Sales and Maryland Portable Concrete.
The legal dispute and disappointment that the legion is still without a building has naturally taken its toll on everyone, Wollenweber said, including organizations who used the legion as an event venue, and veterans in the community, especially older ones, who depended on the post as a meeting place.
The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Sandlass said he was cooking three turkeys and a ham, while other members were in charge of other food items, to bring to veterans at Wright's Assisted Living home in Edgewood for the holiday. In past years, the vets would be taken to the post to have the meal together.
"Our heart and soul is in this building," Clark commented. That is why the committee and the legion's other members continue to work weekends, nights and days off to bring it back to life.