Artie Mae Jeter was an elderly widow living in Tuskegee, Ala. With little formal education, Jeter, who died in 1999, had one prized possession, her home.
Mark and Christine Butland -- he's a sales rep, she's a student -- have a growing family that lives in Tampa's suburbs.
Collier and Peggy Black are millionaire semi-retirees living in the posh bedroom community of Ponte Vedra Beach, near Jacksonville, Fla. Their home cost them $1.7 million.
Elizabeth Allen, a neighbor of the Blacks and an accountant, paid about $500,000 for her home.
What unites the Warrens, Jeter, the Butlands, the Blacks and Allen -- along with 1.6 million other customers, including 83,000 Georgia homeowners -- is that they all trusted "the Orkin man."
Yes, they bit the bait offered by the smiling man in well-pressed Orkin duds and company hardhat. The hook was a "guarantee" to regularly inspect homes for termites, kill the bugs if they're found, and -- this is important -- "repair damage to structure and contents -- no matter how high the cost."
Collier Black says that's why he went to Orkin. "I believed their sales pitch," he recalls. "It was that simple."
Orkin, owned by Atlanta's Rollins Inc., is second among national exterminators to Terminix. But Orkin is probably the best-known name in the very lucrative termite control business, a familiarity fostered by a $30 million annual advertising campaign that, with humorous creativity, has a bug appear to crawl across your TV screen.
What's truly buggy, however, is a series of multimillion-dollar lawsuits that infest Rollins/Orkin like, well, termites on soft wood.
The consumer litigation, most recently a $3 million arbitration award in August for the Blacks, has successfully argued that Rollins/Orkin not only ignores its own guarantees, but endangers homes and even lives by "patch and paint" cosmetic repairs when major reconstruction is the remedy.
"What they are doing is heinous," Collier Black told me. "Ninety-nine percent of the homeowners don't understand what they're getting into when they sign a contract with Orkin. They believe they will be protected, that the company will make good on its guarantees. It just isn't so."
The Blacks fought Orkin for seven years. The couple says they were forced to move into temporary housing for five months and to spend $150,000 to make their house habitable -- after a structural engineer found the home in danger of collapsing. "A balcony was in danger of collapsing on our daughter's bedroom," Black says. "She could have been killed."
The Blacks' neighbor, Allen, says her home has been rendered "totally impossible to sell" due to termite damage to 13 out of 15 rooms. "Orkin should have spotted and fixed the damage, but didn't," Allen contends.
Jeter's home was destroyed by termites. And Orkin, while disingenuously trying to build the woman's trust, sought to conceal the damage by propping up the house with jacks and concrete blocks, according to court documents and press reports. Jeter was so afraid her floor would cave in, she didn't have her family over for what would be her last Thanksgiving.
After her death, Jeter's family won an $81 million jury verdict. The Alabama Supreme Court reduced that to $2.3 million -- but nonetheless scolded Orkin for a scheme that reached top regional management and was "replete with evidence indicating deceitful conduct."
The Butlands' home also was in danger of partial collapse, their lawyer, Dan Clark, told me. The family had to brace doors and roofs with two-by-fours. The Warrens of Marietta figured out something was wrong when their floor became noticeably unlevel.
The Butlands and Allen, are seeking class-action status in Florida -- joining Orkin customers who have suffered similar treatment from the company into a single case. If successful, a class-action case could foreshadow possible company-busting financial awards to settle claims by tens of thousands of people who have seen their American dream turn into a nightmare.
The Warrens' case -- which gained a dose of star quality when former Gov. Roy Barnes joined the legal team -- will have a hearing in January on whether it will have class-action status. "We're talking about tens of thousands of Georgia families," says Barnes' co-counsel, Patrick Millsaps.
Otto Orkin began killing bugs in 1901 in Richmond, Va. On a trip to Atlanta in 1925, he noticed there were no exterminators listed in the phone book, so he opened up a business. Eventually, the company established its headquarters in Atlanta. Considered "eccentric," Orkin had to fight his children to keep control of his business -- the kids wanted dad declared insane. He was savvy enough to fend off his offspring and sell the pest control outfit to Rollins in 1964 for $62 million.
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