Goldstein Buckley Cechman Rice & Purtz Attorney

By Richard L. Purtz, Partner

It is that time of year again when tropical winds begin to form massive cyclones in the Atlantic, Caribbean Sea and Gulf Mexico. Once these tropical storms achieve maximum sustained winds of 74 mph, they become classified as hurricanes. In Florida, the hurricane season is fully upon us. The National Weather Service provides both short term and long term forecasts. When storms come ashore in Florida, significant damage to structures from wind, rain and flying debris can occur. Devastating storms have visited Southwest Florida in the recent past. Hurricane Charley in 2004, on Friday the 13th of August and Hurricane Wilma on October 24, 2005. Both storms left paths of destruction and despair as they crossed Florida.

For homeowners, hurricanes pose the most serious widespread threat of damage to one’s property. Dealing with an insurer after such an event poses many financial, logistical and psychological challenges. While many people believe their insurance company should show up the day after a storm hits with money and dry cool place to stay, it is not long before the realities set in and families find themselves having to fend for themselves and wade through the seemingly mountain high of paperwork.

Fortunately, organizations like FEMA and the American Red Cross can and do provide emergency help, but usually to a limited extent. Thus, homeowners are left to their own devices to deal with their insurers.

Homeowners insurance is designed and intended to put the insured back in the position they were in before the loss occurred. Due to the heavy losses insurers incurred during 2004 and 2005 in Florida, policies are now issued with high windstorm deductibles. Today, instead of a $100 deductible, the insured are facing a deductible of 2-10% of the face amount of the policy. Thus a policy holder with a $300,000 dwelling coverage policy, is looking at a deductible between $6,000 and $30,000. Such large deductibles make it unlikely that most people will be made whole since most Floridians cannot write a check for up to $30,000 out of a bank account. So what can you do help yourself absorb your deductible?

DOCUMENT, DOCUMENT, DOCUMENT—before and after the loss. It is wise to make a video or photo inventory of all of your property before a storm, or other peril, strikes. Keeping good records or purchases is mandatory. Prepare a spreadsheet showing the date of purchase, purchase price, model number and warranty information. Scan the backup documentation to the cloud service and/or Dropbox or a removable zip or hard drive and store them in a safe off premises location. A bank safe deposit box works well for this purpose. Keeping good records beforehand will help your insurance claim in two ways. First, it will be easier and quicker for your insurer to establish the actual cash value, on replacement value, or your property. Secondly, knowing the age of the item will help you and your insurer establish a reasonable amount for depreciation for any item with a limited life expectancy. Some insurers today are now documenting your property via inspection and photographic evidence, before they will insure you. You should too!!!

After the loss, document, document, document. From the very first opportunity on, start photographing or videotaping every square inch of your property. If you see water intruding, photograph it. If your wooden floor swells, photograph it. If a box of heirlooms in your attic gets soaked, photograph and inventory each item. If a window is broken, photograph it. Photograph the exterior of your home, your yard and your neighborhood. Missing roof tiles from your neighbor’s home can cause serious damage to your house.

Your duties to your insurer after a loss include the duty to preserve your property from further damage, in other words, to minimize or mitigate your damage. You also have a broader duty to cooperate with your insurer. In some instances, some insurers require you to give sworn testimony and turn over financial records. Be prepared. The courts have upheld an insurer’s right to this discovery of matters about you. [Goldman vs State Farm Fire General Ins. Co., 660 So. 2d 300-Fla: Dist. Court of Apeals, 4th Dist. 1995]

Lastly, keep track of the work you do on your property to preserve and protect it.   You are entitled to the reasonable value of your time in making sure your property is protected from further damage and for repairs, even if only temporary repairs. Thus, spending 200 hours of your time removing debris, making temporary repairs, storing property in a secure place and other activities to protect and preserve your property can give you a credit toward your deductible. Thus, 200 hours of your time at $20.00/hour can be used to set off $4,000 of your deductible. Again however, document, document, document your time and efforts.

An attorney experienced with hurricane claims can review the information and documentation of your claim and help you determine the best course of action when dealing with the insurance company. If you find yourself having difficulty with an insurance company—contact a knowledgeable attorney immediately. Call Goldstein, Buckley, Cechman, Rice & Purtz at 239-334-1146. Our attorneys have experience working with insurance companies for over 50 years. Contact us today.