This is Part 2 of a two-part series on claims management in the wake of a disaster. Part 1 of this series can be found here.
Protect All Property From Further Damage Every policy requires that the insured protect the property from further loss. Therefore, you should turn off any water flow to broken appliances or pipes, arrange to have openings in roofs or walls covered to protect from rain damage, and seek help from the adjuster to further protect your property from losses of all types.
Take any necessary emergency measures to protect the building and personal property from any further damage. Do not throw anything away until permission of the insurance company is obtained in writing and you have documented its condition unless the damaged property presents a hazard to the health or safety of your family or others.
If the insurer delays or refuses to authorize measures to prevent further loss, confirm the insurer's delay in a fax, email, and a letter, and take whatever reasonable measures you can afford to protect the property. If your loss is covered, the insurance company should also cover the cost of any reasonable emergency measures you took to protect your property. It is not unusual for an insurer to deny coverage for damage resulting after the initial claim on the grounds that an insured failed to comply with the policy condition to protect the property from further damage.
Document The Loss
If you were prudent and prepared, before the catastrophe, an inventory of your contents or took pictures of your contents, provide the adjuster with the inventory and photographs or videotape. Photograph, videotape, and inventory all damaged property after the loss. Make sure you record the date of the photos and videotape. It is important to document the source and the extent of damage whether by fire or water intrusion.
In most states, a material misrepresentation, concealment, or omission made in connection with the claim will give the insurer a valid reason to reject the entire claim. For example, claiming that an item was destroyed that really wasn't or substantially overstating the value of a damaged item is fraud. In most states insurance fraud is a felony that can place you in state prison if convicted.
No catastrophe is so bad as to cause you to attempt to defraud your insurer to make up for uninsured losses. You should never exaggerate, speculate, or guess about the loss or value of any particular piece of property. Make it clear to your insurer when recollection may not be accurate, when you are estimating value, and the basis for your estimate. For the value of items you are not sure about on a claim presentation, use the phrase "To Be Determined." If you do not have receipts to show the price of an item, information can be found in catalogs, statements from retail clerks, bank statements, credit card statements, or statements from family members or friends.
If all else fails, a formal appraisal can be obtained from a professional personal property appraiser. Save this as a last resort, since the insurer will usually refuse to reimburse you for the costs of hiring an appraiser, but may hire one at no cost to you if asked courteously.
You Must Cooperate With The Insurance Company's Investigation And Handling Of The Claim
You have a contractual obligation to cooperate with the insurer in its investigation and handling of the claim. However, you never have an obligation to allow yourself to be abused. In most states the insured and the insurance company have a mutual obligation to act in good faith and deal fairly with each other to investigate and process the claim. This means that both should avoid taking any unreasonable position or doing or saying anything that would in any way frustrate each other's rights under the policy.
The insurer may require one or more recorded statements from you. Always request a copy of the recording and a transcript of the statement to review. You have a right to review and correct the transcript of any recorded statement.
You may also be required to appear for an "Examination Under Oath" (EUO). The insurer may, but is not required to, hire an attorney to take the Examination Under Oath to represent the insured. Since a lawyer is not required, however, the insurer will not pay for the attorney that is representing you. The Examination Under Oath is a contractual obligation and there is usually no clause in the insurance policy promising to pay a lawyer to help the insured make a claim against an insurer. You should not appear for an Examination Under Oath until you understand all rights, the insurance coverage, and the full extent of the claim, or until counsel is retained. Do not refuse to appear at an Examination Under Oath or the insurer may reject the claim because such refusal is a breach of a material condition of the policy. You may reasonably request a delay in appearance at an Examination Under Oath to obtain the services of counsel or a public insurance adjuster.
The insurer may ask you to make available various documents related to the claim, including banking statements, investment reports, receipts, and other personal financial documents. You are required to produce any documentation reasonably related to the insurer's investigation of the claim that can include tax returns. In some states, tax returns are considered privileged and the insured cannot be compelled to produce them, while in other states the failure to produce tax returns is sufficient cause to deny the claim. [See Barry Zalma, Insurance Claims: A Comprehensive Guide, (Specialty Technical Publishers, 2002): Chapter II-5.]
The insurer can require you to produce these kinds of documents as long as they are reasonably related to its investigation. You should not provide these documents to the insurer until you understand the rights, duties, and obligations imposed by the insurance coverage and the full extent of the claim. You should never refuse to produce documents unreasonably since the requirement for document production is a condition precedent to the insurer's obligation to provide a defense and/or indemnity to you.
Proof Of Loss Requirement
Most first party property policies require that you submit a sworn proof of loss form to the insurer within a certain amount of time, either after the loss or after being provided the proof of loss form. During a catastrophe, especially when total losses are involved, insurers will often waive this requirement.
Flood insurance policies require the proof of loss within sixty days of the loss and are applied in a draconian fashion. If you cannot produce a proof of flood loss within 60 days of the loss, obtain an extension of time, in writing from the adjuster, or you will lose all rights under the policy to indemnity.
In most states you are contractually obligated to submit the sworn proof of loss within the time limit (usually 60 days from the date of request), or at least to substantially comply with the requirement, unless the insurer agrees to dispense with the sworn proof of loss or extend the time. You should not submit the sworn proof of loss to the insurer until you understand all of the rights and obligations imposed by the policy, the insurance coverages, and the full extent of the claim. It is not unusual for an insurer to consider mistakes in the sworn proof of loss (since they are sworn to under oath) as intentional misrepresentations sufficient to allow it to reject coverage for a claim. A statement made under oath cannot, by definition, contain an innocent misrepresentation. Never sign a sworn proof of loss, even if your lawyer or professional public insurance adjuster prepares it, until you have carefully read every word and are certain that the statements made are true.
Some insurers believe that, at some point, you will refuse to comply with their requests. If you refuse to comply with reasonable requests for a recorded statement, an Examination Under Oath, a sworn proof of loss, or documents reasonably related to the insurer's investigation, you may give the insurer a valid excuse to deny the claim based on your breach of the duty to cooperate.
If you believe that any requests made by the insurer are unreasonable, ask the insurer to explain the reason(s) for the requests in writing. Err on the side of caution and provide all documents that have some reasonable connection to the policy or loss. Before giving an insurer a reason to deny a claim because of your failure to cooperate, consult with a policyholder attorney, a public adjuster, or the state Department of Insurance before refusing a request that may, in retrospect, turn out to have been reasonable.
Get A Second Opinion
Many insureds believe that insurers make a practice of making inadequate (sometimes called "lowball") offers of settlement. They are wary of what they think are estimates from insurance-company-friendly contractors. Whether true or not, it is a good practice to get a second, or even a third, written estimate to repair and replace damaged property from reputable, independent professionals that you would hire to do the repairs if there was no insurance.
You are entitled to have the damaged property replaced with "like kind and quality." This means that you should insist that the amount determined to be the amount of loss is sufficient to replace the property with property of like kind and quality to the damaged property. When you cannot match the remaining undamaged tile, wallpaper, carpeting, or other portions of undamaged property, you are usually entitled to have the entire "line of sight" replaced to match. For example, if a broken water pipe destroys the hardwood floor in a kitchen and does no damage to the contiguous hardwood floor in the adjoining family room, the insurer is required to replace both the damaged and undamaged floors so that they match as long as they are in a continuous line of sight.
Some losses are paid on an actual cash value (ACTUAL CASH VALUE) basis, which in some states means either the fair market value of the property at the time of loss unless the policy defines ACTUAL CASH VALUE differently. Many policies will define ACTUAL CASH VALUE as replacement cost less physical depreciation for age and wear and tear.
Some losses are paid out on a replacement cost value (REPLACEMENT COST VALUE), where the insured is paid the difference between actual cash value and replacement cost value after the insured has actual sums necessary to complete the replacement.
You may collect the ACTUAL CASH VALUE loss immediately and advise the insurer you intend to make claim for the difference between ACTUAL CASH VALUE and REPLACEMENT COST VALUE when the structure is rebuilt. If your policy has a time-limit for rebuilding be sure to get a written extension of time since, after a catastrophe, the rebuilding process is often severely delayed.
When fire and water-damage reconstruction contractors write estimates for insurance companies they always add at the end of their estimate a sum equal to 10% of the basic contract price for "overhead," and an additional 10% of the basic contract price for "profit."
This technique is a fiction believed only by contractors and adjusters. Knowledgeable construction people know that no contractor could survive on 10% profit and that contractors build overhead and profit into their basic unit costs (paint, plaster, roofing, etc) and add the "profit and overhead" numbers as a fee for the extra service they provide to insurers.
In recent years, some insurers have attempted to withhold 20%, an amount equal to the contractor's "profit and overhead" numbers to arrive at an ACTUAL CASH VALUE amount. There is no basis in the policy that allows withholding profit and overhead as a means of calculating ACTUAL CASH VALUE. In fact, ACTUAL CASH VALUE is defined either as the difference in the fair market value of the property before the loss and the fair market value of the property after the loss or the full cost of replacement using like kind and quality, less physical depreciation.
You should insist that any amounts withheld from payment pending completion of the work, be documented in writing and justified by the adjuster objectively. Policyholder attorneys and some insurance regulators have successfully prevented insurers from withholding these amounts.
Thoroughly investigate the qualifications, license, and references of your insurance company's approved contractor before agreeing to hire them to perform the repairs. The State Contractors Licensing Board will usually provide the consumer, by telephone or over the Internet, with the contractor's license status and history of discipline. At a minimum, the licensing entity and a reference should be checked before a contract is signed. You do not have to use consultants or contractors recommended or approved by the insurer to perform repairs. Approved contractors are typically contractors who have agreed to discount their labor and costs and follow insurer guidelines in exchange for a volume of business from the insurance company. If your insurer promises to guarantee the approved contractor's work, the guarantee is generally limited to replacing any defective materials or correcting faulty workmanship. The insurer is not insuring against any contractor delays, negligence, or liability. Accordingly, do not use the approved contractor unless it is a contractor that you would independently hire to do the work after a thorough screening. Check that each contractor's license is valid and for any complaints against the license. Ensure that the contractor is bonded and insured.
Seek Proper Legal Advice
Never sign a release, waiver, indemnity, or "hold harmless" agreement without proper legal advice. If the insurer, adjuster, consultant, or contractor asks you to sign a release, waiver, indemnity, or hold harmless agreement, ask them to explain why in writing. These kinds of agreements can be used to deprive an insured of rights and benefits and may obligate you to pay thousands of extra dollars for issues that arise. Consult a policyholder attorney to determine your rights before signing any such agreement.
Seek professional help, if needed. If you reach an impasse with the insurer, document the dispute fully in writing. Explain your position and why the insurance company's position is unreasonable. If the dispute does not require legal advice, you may be able to resolve it by calling your state's Department of Insurance or by hiring a lawyer or public adjuster. If the dispute does require legal advice, contact a lawyer who is experienced and specializes in representing policyholders. There are many consultants who claim to be "insurance claims experts" who do not have adequate training, skill, or experience. Before you retain one, investigate the person diligently by contacting licensing bodies and references.
Be Aware Of Deadlines
Make sure you know all the deadlines that may cut off the right to file a lawsuit. California has a four-year statute of limitations for breaches of written contracts but most insurance policies require suit within one or two years of the loss or the denial of a claim. If your claim is denied, seek legal advice promptly.
In most states the insurance company is required to tell you, in writing, that the claim is denied, and that the limitations clock is running. That is, if you disagree with the insurer's conclusion to deny your claim you have a limited time to file suit. Make sure you understand all possible deadlines. Consult with a policyholder attorney as soon as possible. The time limitation can be as short as one year from the date the loss occurred and can be put on hold by actions of the insurer. If you wish to sue, it is best to contact counsel as soon as possible before the expiration of the time limit.
Report all Unfair Claims Handling to the Department of Insurance or an Insurance Regulator
The state Insurance Department tracks policyholder complaints about their insurers and compiles the results. Most states have proactive consumer advocates in their insurance departments who will jump in to help you if they believe the insurer is not treating you fairly.
Many insurers involved in catastrophes provide their adjusters with policy limits authority and instruct the adjuster to be generous. If your house was one of those totally destroyed and coverage is available, there is a good probability that you will receive the full policy limits immediately.
If you did not carry sufficient insurance to totally rebuild your house and replace your contents consider the acquisition of a factory built home which can be trucked to your site and completed, with all appliances included, for much less than a conventionally constructed home. Almost all claims will be handled promptly and fairly. A person knowledgeable about insurance claims can better deal with an insurance company. Don't take advantage of your insurer and don't let an insurer take advantage of you. You are entitled to indemnity. You and your insurer should work together to make you whole.
This article is adapted from Barry Zalma's book, "Insurance Claims: A Comprehensive Guide" and his book "Mold: A Comprehensive Claims Guide" published by Specialty Technical Publishers, Vancouver, BC, Canada; 800-251-0381; http://www.stpub.com.