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Lifetime of memories, Barbies ruined in self storage

Uncle Bob’s Self Storage former employee Laura Marks is shown with Angela Porter’s ruined items in May 2011.
Uncle Bob’s Self Storage former employee Laura Marks is shown with Angela Porter’s ruined items in May 2011.
Published Jun. 25, 2015

SEMINOLE — When Angela Porter stopped by Uncle Bob's storage facility on Seminole Boulevard to pay her monthly bill, a staff member told her she should check on her belongings. Porter walked into the air-conditioned building to her small unit, rolled up the door and couldn't believe what she saw.

A lifetime of memories covered in water and mold.

The quilts her grandmother and great-grandmother made her when she was a child, her wedding dress, the photos of her dad in his firefighter's uniform, a valuable collection of vintage Barbies still in unopened cases — had all been tucked safely away in cardboard and plastic boxes. The boxes were now soaked or filled with water, many speckled with white and black mold. Above them was a gaping hole in the roof.

Uncle Bob's is part of a real estate investment trust called Sovran Self Storage, which trades on the New York Stock Exchange.

Porter spent two days wearing a surgical mask going through boxes. She found nothing salvageable but her high school diploma, though it was faded and tattered from the water. Uncle Bob's management told Porter the company wasn't responsible for compensating her for losses because she didn't buy insurance for the unit's contents.

Now, she and her husband are suing Uncle Bob's and parent company Sovran Self Storage for $100,000. They allege gross negligence because the company didn't take reasonable measures to maintain the facilities or notify them there were leaks in the roof.

Because of the extensive damage to every box, even holes in plastic lids, Porter thinks water had been seeping into the unit for one or two years.

Porter estimated the value of the more than 600 Barbies and accessories from the 1960s through 2000 at $100,000.

"The emotional value of all I lost, you can't put a price on that," Porter said. "I want them to understand just because I'm a small person in a big fish pond they can't hurt people this way and not do anything about it."

It has been four years since her property was ruined at Uncle Bob's. It has taken that long to find a lawyer and get the suit filed.

"We insure the building and the property but the contents inside the building are the responsibility of the customer to take out their own insurance. In the contract it states that very clearly," said Diane Piezga, spokeswoman for Sovran, which operates 500 self-storage facilities around the country. "We offer third-party insurance for customers."

She compared the practice to an apartment building. The landlord doesn't insure what's in a tenant's unit. That's why tenants get renter's insurance.

"I would dispute the fact that (Porter's storage unit) was damaged that long. We take our upkeep on our properties pretty seriously," Piezga said.

When a reporter pointed out that the unit contained water long enough for mold to grow she replied: "We have learned mold can grow very, very quickly in a matter of days in the right conditions."

These kinds of maintenance problems are very rare for Uncle Bob's, Piezga added. There are no other pending lawsuits against the Seminole storage facility.

Porter said the tenant leasing the unit next to hers lost antique furniture and another woman in the same building said her computer was ruined.

The Guide to Self Storage website advises customers to always buy insurance.

"You'll often find clauses in contracts stating that not having insurance may reduce your rights if unforeseen accidents occur. Some self-storage companies will even insist that you take out either their own insurance policies or those of their recommended partners," it reads.

Porter said she didn't opt for insurance because it was capped far below what her property was worth and she would have had to pay an appraiser to give the storage company a certified value to raise it.

Citizens Insurance is also named as a defendant in the suit because it wouldn't cover any of Porter's losses. Citizens spokesman Michael Peltier couldn't comment on the specific case but said every policy is different, and customers should review theirs with an agent to know what's covered and what's not before a loss occurs.

"If it's worth keeping in storage it's worth insurance," said Lynn McChristian with the Insurance Information Institute in Tampa.

Many homeowners policies do offer coverage for items that are "off premises," she added. This would include a storage unit or even items stolen out of your car at the mall. But the coverage limit is usually low, around $1,000, so customers may need to buy a rider with additional coverage.

"I trusted it was safe because it's air conditioned and climate controlled," Porter explained.

Her advice to anyone considering putting important property into storage?

"Unless you're willing to check on it every week, don't."

Contact Katherine Snow Smith at (727) 893-8785 or kssmith@tampabay.com. Follow @snowsmith.