WARNING: Your property insurance claim is routine business for the insurance company. It is important that you consult with an attorney who specializes in property insurance law, so that the true value of your loss can be determined.
99 percent of the tornado damage in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties has been confirmed—at least 653 properties were damaged. One would think these folks should get fair treatment from their insurance companies without the need for attorney representation—when all that is left is your front steps, it is clearly a total loss and should be paid in full by the insurance company, right? Unfortunately, in many tornado claims, insurance companies contest the scope of the loss, leaving property owners without enough funds to properly repair their homes. And by the time property owners find out their insurer isn’t going to play fair—it is often too late to properly document the claim because all of the evidence is gone. Hiring an attorney from the outset of the claim can avoid these problems. Here are some additional tips to help tornado victims avoid being taken advantage of by their insurance companies—or other scam artists:
- Report your claim directly to the insurance company promptly. Consider hiring an attorney to assist you in reporting the claim. Insurers often use the initial claim reporting call to pressure homeowners into speculating about the cause and the extent of their damages. If possible, report the claim in writing by fax or email and get a confirmation that your communication was received. If that is not possible, then call in the claim. Just as the insurer advises you “the call may be recorded for quality assurance,” ask the phone representative if it is okay if you record the call. If so, do the call on speaker phone while recording it. If they say no, then just record your end of the call. Take detailed notes of the date and time you called and what was said in the conversation. Include this information on your recording as well. DO NOT SPECULATE as to the extent of your damages. Just tell the insurance company you do not know as you are not an expert, and it needs to be inspected by a structural engineer and/or a general contractor.
- Document the damage. Do not throw away anything whatsoever—contents or building materials–before the insurer and/or your own experts get the opportunity to inspect, no matter how bad the damage is. As soon as you can you should video and photograph the scene. You will also need to create an inventory of damaged and destroyed contents. Preparing a contents inventory can be overwhelming. The early hiring of an attorney can take this type of burden off of the homeowner and place it into the hands of reputable and experienced experts.
- Retain your own reputable experts before the evidence is gone. If you are able, hire your own structural engineer and general contractor to inspect the scene before any debris is removed. These experts should be licensed, bonded and insured. You should check references and get any agreements in writing. Beware of scammers soliciting you. If you cannot afford to retain your own team of experts, most law firms who specialize in tornado claims will advance those funds on your behalf and ensure that your claim is properly documented with the appropriate expert witnesses before it is too late and the evidence is gone. Good law firms will hire a team of experienced, credible experts who are qualified to testify in court should the need arise.
- Make reasonable efforts to protect your property from further damage. If after the tornado, your property is partially damaged and can be repaired, you should make reasonable repairs to protect your property from further damage. For example, tarp the roof to mitigate any leaks. Caulk any points of entry to prevent water intrusion. Ask your team of experts if there are any other reasonable temporary repairs you can make to prevent further damage to the property. If you fail to make such temporary repairs, the insurance company will blame you for some of the damage and you may not get fully compensated for your loss.
- Ask for a certified copy of your insurance policy and review it. Many folks assume they have a complete copy of their insurance policy, but they only have part of it. Request a certified copy of your insurance policy from your insurer. The carrier must attest that it is a complete and accurate copy of the policy in effect at the time of the loss. If you have trouble understanding the scope of your coverage, do not rely on your insurance company to volunteer this information accurately to you. Consult an experienced property insurance attorney who can force the insurance company to keep its promises.
We all need insurance, but the insurance industry’s desire to make a profit often stands at odds with its obligations to pay property owners the full amount of their losses.
With any luck your insurer will do the right thing. But it is wise to be prepared in the event it turns out your insurer is looking out for its own pocketbook rather than fairly paying your claim.
Kristin Demers-Crowell has dedicated her career to helping homeowners and businesses recover from catastrophes and forcing insurance companies to keep their promises.