Facing the Aftermath of a Hurricane - Filing Insurance Claims
For people caught in the devastation of a hurricane, the initial trauma of the storm is followed by days and weeks of difficult recovery. With considerable property damage to homes and businesses, the weeks after the storm involve surveying the damage and putting the pieces back together, and that includes filing insurance claims.
If your law firm or business has been damaged, begin the process of filing an insurance claim by following these steps:
Find Your Insurance Policy
The first step in this process is to find your insurance policy and read it very carefully to determine what is covered under your policy and what is not. Generally, flood coverage is purchased separately and usually through the National Flood Insurance Program that offers coverage through private insurers. People in certain communities more likely to be affected by floods were probably required to purchase flood insurance as a condition of their mortgage.
Importantly, damage in a hurricane or tropical storm can be caused by wind, water, or other sources, so it is important to review your entire policy to see what you have covered. Additionally, review your policy to determine what your deductible is, what procedures are required by your carrier to make a claim, and the time limits for making a claim. Often times, notifying your insurer and submitting a claim form must be done in a relatively short period of time, so do not delay. For flood coverage, the NFIP requires that you submit a Proof of Loss form within 60 days of the flood.
Note your policy number as well, as you will need this when you call your insurance representative.
Contact Your Insurance Representative
Call your insurance representative immediately and notify them that you are making a claim for damages. Make sure you have your policy number ready to provide to your agent so that they can open a claim. They will provide you with a claim number, and assign your claim to an adjuster who will then contact you to evaluate your damage.
Remember, insurance representatives and adjusters are not your friends. As attorneys, you may have had experience working with adjusters, or perhaps you work in a different field where you have not had the joy of that experience. They may be helpful and friendly (or not, depending on your luck of the draw), but they work for a company who wants to make money and generally speaking, wants to pay the least amount on your claim. Be circumspect in your interactions with them, and do not let them put words in your mouth.
Take Photographs and Video of Losses
It is important to record your damage as soon as possible so that you will be able to prove your claim. Taking pictures and video is extremely helpful so that an adjuster can see the damage in the state it existed right after the damage occurred. As time elapses, damage can look different, so it is important to capture it as soon as possible. Video can be very powerful testimony down the road.
In addition to photos and video, make a list of everything that was damaged and if possible, write down the value of the item. Include receipts if they can be located. Being organized will make the adjuster's job much easier for them. They will be appreciative of organizational efforts on your part, particularly if they are inundated with claims, which they likely will be after a major disaster, such as Hurricane Sandy.
Mitigate Your Damages
An important concept in the law is that you must take efforts to prevent further avoidable damages after an initial incident. Thus, although it is important to preserve all of your evidence, you do want to take steps to prevent further losses that could be avoidable.
In the case of water damage, a big problem will be mold. Therefore, after documenting all of the damage through photos or video, be sure to move any water damaged items and put them outside and clean up water and moisture that remains inside so that mold does not develop. Generally, damage from mold will not be covered under your policy. Advise the adjuster that you plan on taking these precautions and ask them if they have any concerns about the same. They can raise any issues at that time, and cannot later object that you disturbed the evidence.
Follow up emails and letters are crucial. You may be making a lot of phone calls with adjusters and any contractors needed for repair and it is important to have all communications documented. That way when delay occurs, and oh it will, you will have a clear trail of what steps were and were not taken, and the amount of time that elapsed throughout the process.
This may come in very handy down the road if the actions by the insurance company give rise to an claim against them for bad faith.
Do Not Accept the Insurer's First Offer on Anything
Everything is negotiable. Never take the adjuster's word on anything, whether it be how the language of your policy is to be interpreted, what damage is covered, what contractors to use, and of course, what the value is of your loss. If you are faced with the adjuster telling you that your loss is not covered, that they will only use their contractor or their contractor's estimate of damages, you do not have to accept this. You can request a second opinion and importantly, you can request mediation of your claim or request an appraisal under the policy, depending on the language in your specific policy.
An appraisal is a very specific procedure that will be defined by your policy. It involves the parties agreeing to an independent third appraiser, who will evaluate the damage and evidence submitted by both sides, and make a determination of the value of your loss.
If necessary, you may need to retain counsel who is experienced in this area of the law.
Stay On Top of Your Claim
In my experience, insurance companies do not move quickly and delay is common place. Stay on top of your claim, and continue to contact the adjuster to keep your claim moving. Delay could prove devastating for your business, so continue to remind the adjuster of that, and that you reserve any and all rights to make a claim for bad faith, should circumstances warrant.
I do agree with the old adage that you get more with honey than vinegar, so remaining courteous is important, regardless of how difficult the process may become.
Anne O'Donnell is a recovering litigator who is now currently a Senior Writer for legal professional content at Findlaw.com. She practiced for 10 years in civil litigation in San Francisco.