Three local independent agents said insurance companies and agencies vary in responses to claims. Jim Suiter, president of American Insurance Managers; Jeff Morelock, Insurance Incorporated; and Grant Pirkle, Summit Insurance Service, each represent 15 to 20 insurance companies.
AIM has offices in Cleveland, Knoxville and Franklin. Insurance Incorporated has one office in Cleveland and Pirkle owns Summit Insurance Services in Cleveland and Simmons Insurance in Winchester.
Suiter said how clients’ claims are handled makes a difference to them.
“I’ve actually written new business already because neighbors saw me out there Wednesday and have said I want this guy as my agent,” Suiter said. “One man said he’d called his agent a number of times and still hasn’t heard from him.”
Morelock entered the insurance business in 1975, a year after the 1974 tornadoes struck Cleveland.
The April 27 tornadoes were much worse than 1974 and though the volume of claims is greater, he is not sure the damage from the recent tornadoes will top the dollar amount of the 1993 blizzard.
“We had some big claims in the snow of ’93 and some big commercial buildings that were down,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of million dollars claims this time, but had some whoppers in ’93.”
Morelock said his computers were down last Thursday morning and his agency forwarded all calls to the insurance company until the system was restored and he could provide individual service.
He said it is important that people understand insurance companies do not settle claims on a first-come, first-served basis in a catastrophic situation.
“However, most insurance companies will want to settle claims quickly. The biggest problem will not be with the insurance company, but getting somebody to do the work,” Morelock said. “Insurance companies might be willing to settle, but people who do tree work are covered up. It doesn’t help to settle if you can’t find somebody to do the work. It’s the same problem with contractors and roofers.”
Morelock said insurance companies are swamped “and it’s times like this when we’re called upon to be of service, and that’s what we’re trying to do. I think all insurance companies are in the same boat. We’re trying to be of service and I hope people understand the more serious claims will get attention first.”
Grant Pirkle, owner of Summit Insurance Service, has 18 years as an agent. He left Insurance Incorporated about six months month ago to open his own agency on Inman Street.
Pirkle said during a visit to Karen Wooden’s home in Bates Pointe Subdivision he believes personal contact makes a difference.
“You can send them to an 800 number or you can be there for them,” he said. “What do you want in your agent? We’re totally different than an 800 number.
“We want to be the face in front of our clients because they bought from us, not an 800 number.”
Suiter said agents are not claims adjusters, though some agents can settle claims for minor amounts. Most claims are settled by adjusters, not by agents.
“Some of the claims adjusters have been in my office this week. We’ve been out on site writing checks to people right there on the same day,” he said. “That’s for the people who can put their statement of value together and actually complete the claims process.”
Pirkle said under normal circumstance, an insurance adjuster should contact policyholders within 24 hours of filing a claim, but in this catastrophe caused by the tornadoes, it might be four to six days, because the adjuster might be in Tuscaloosa, Ala. More than 200 people lost their lives in Alabama in the devastating April 27 tornado outbreak.
“I met with one of my adjusters Tuesday who was delayed getting to Bradley County because he’d been in Tuscaloosa taking care of them,” Pirkle said.
Some insurance companies have brought catastrophic teams to the county, especially to deal with hail damage to automobiles. As a side note, Suiter said there are no rental cars available in Knoxville and very few in Chattanooga.
Adjusters are set up in various locations to handle drive-through claims. Other companies have “Blue Ribbon Workshops” to eliminate the need for three estimates. These pre-certified locations are online with the companies. Pictures are taken, estimates are given and the information is electronically forwarded to adjusters and the transaction takes place on the spot.
“We’ve had a tremendous number of claims and we’ve not had any complaints on how we’ve handled them,” Suiter said. “We’re still getting claims many people have been without electricity and can’t make phone calls.
“Roof claims are a big, big problem right now,” he said.
Suiter said people with fiberglass shingles should be aware that hail can create spider-like breaks similar to a break in a windshield; such damage is often invisible to the naked eye from the ground.
“When it starts to rain, water penetrates the cracks and you don’t know you’ve got hail damage until later,” he said. “It’s very difficult sometimes to tell if you’ve got hail damage without getting on the roof.”
He said if a neighbor’s tree falls on another neighbor’s house, the neighbor is not negligent unless the tree was dying and the owner of the tree knew so.
“That’s considered an act of God; the insurance of the homeowner that had the damage would be responsible,” Suiter said. “However, if your neighbor’s tree was obviously dying and you made your neighbor aware that the tree was dying and it fell on your house, then your neighbors liability policy would pick up the damage to your house. Maintenance of trees are the responsibility of homeowners.
Most policies cover tree removal and the cost of replacing a tree, depending on the policy, from $1,000 to $5,000. Many trees blown over in the tornadoes cost more than $1,000 to remove.
“Most insurance companies will pay between $1,000 and $5,000 to remove trees and replace trees,” Suiter said.
After the storm, all three agents said to avoid door-to-door solicitations from unknown, out-of-state or out-of-town roofing companies.
“Make sure you call a reputable roofer and avoid door-to-door companies that promise you a new roof,” Morelock said.
Pirkle said call someone trustworthy, then after the inspection, call the agency if there is hail or wind damage.
“You don’t necessarily have to file a claim for hail damage to have someone inspect for roof damage,” he said.
The three agents provided several other bits of information the public needs to know but may not be aware of.
Suiter said before a claim can be settled there must be a statement of loss for personal or business personal property that must be written and signed by the insured.
“That can be a very difficult thing to come up with if you are not prepared in advance,” he said.
Suiter recommended all homeowners create a video of each room in order to do an itemized list in case of a catastrophic event in the future.
“Most people are lucky to remember 50 percent of what’s in their homes,” he said. “The video gives us a starting point to put this list together.”
He said Christmas is a good time to make the recording because sentimental ornaments collected over the years are usually stored away in boxes until the next Christmas.
Most homeowner policies are written on replacement cost, the full retail value, versus actual cash value, which is the cost minus depreciation.
“I also recommend filming closets very carefully,” he said. “When we film your closet, we like to film the number of hangars because a shirt may cost $5 at a yard sale or $50 at a department store. We would replace that shirt at replacement cost value.”
Most insurance companies pay the actual cash value prior to replacement, then pay the difference between actual cash value and replacement cost after the insured actually purchases the replacement items.
“If you’ve not done some proactive work before a catastrophic event, you can find yourself in a real predicament,” Suiter said.
After making the video, put it in a safety deposit box, with a relative who does not live nearby, and/or store it with the insurance agent.
Morelock said most homeowner policies provide for alternative housing that is usually about 10 percent of the policy value. For instance, a $200,000 policy provides up to $20,000 in additional living expenses.
“They are not going to pay the entire 10 percent if you don’t need it,” he said.
Pirkle said to always deal with an A-plus rated company so there are no questions about the company’s level of service and financial stability when it comes time to file a claim.
“Make sure the company is one that is admitted to operate in the state of Tennessee,” he said. “An admitted company has agreed to comply with state law.”