A devastating natural gas explosion in a Toronto suburb serves as a rude awakening for a group of homeowners. The amount of insurance they think they have is not what they’re offered by their insurance companies. Rather than settle for less, the homeowners form a self-help group to fight their case. And they enlist the help of public insurance adjusters, independent agents who will do their own damage estimates and then take on the insurance companies.

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We all buy home insurance hoping we never have to use it but if disaster strikes, we expect to be looked after. That’s what a group of Ontario home owners thought after a gas explosion rocked their neighborhood. Instead, they ended up in a bitter dispute with their insurance company.

On July 31, 1996, the quiet neighborhood in Thornhill, north of Toronto, was shattered by a natural gas explosion in a basement. One house was blown apart. No one was killed but six people were injured. Two of them, seriously. Roofs were lifted, windows were shattered. Walls bulged. In all, 11 houses have been condemned and unfit to live in.

Natural gas explosions can be devastating. The Calgary fire department conducted this controlled blast as part of a training exercise. It gives you some idea of what happened in Thornhill, where the explosion was blamed on the newly-installed gas water heater.

The homeowners in Thornhill had home insurance. One house was insured for one-hundred-eighty-two-thousand dollars to cover the cost of replacing the house. But after checking out the damage, the insurance company wasn’t willing to replace the house. It said it could be repaired and offered $136-thousand dollars. Many of the neighbours have similar problems.

Once a week, they get together to share the pain of their loss. And to exchange notes on their fight with their insurance companies. Some companies have even stopped paying temporary living expenses. As far as they are concerned, there are two tragedies. One is the house exploded and the other is dealing with the insurance company.

At least eight different insurance companies are involved and the complaints are the same. Low appraisals on the amount of damage. Adjusters pressuring homeowners to settle. Letters from insurance companies threatening to cut off living expenses. It’s already been a four-month ordeal for the Thornhill home owners. And many of them still don’t know when or how it will all end.

The Reverend Ray Cross knows everything about fighting for every single cent. Three years ago, the Baptist minister lost his home when his neighbour’s house blew up. Cross and his wife survived the explosion, only to be end up in a battle with their insurance company.

The Cross’ got help in that battle from an unusual source. They hired a public adjuster. Public adjusters are a rarity in the insurance industry. Most adjusters work for insurance companies. Public adjusters work exclusively for policy holders. There are fewer than ten public adjusters in Ontario. Bob Watson and Steve Kay work for the same company. The National Fire Adjustment, N.F.A. They’re paid a percentage of the final settlement, anywhere from eight to 15 percent.

Watson has been an adjuster for 37 years. Most of that time he worked for insurance companies. Eight years ago, he decided to become a public adjuster. In his experience, insurance companies don’t like public adjusters because the public adjuster, puts the insured on the same playing field as the insurance company in terms of knowledge of what to do with the claim and how to go about getting the maximum dollar you’re entitled to.

Cross hired N.F.A.’s Bob Watson, when his insurance company offered only $95-thousand. He knew the language, he knew the law, he knew the techniques. He could back them up if need be. He could present valid claims. He did the proof of loss. He brought in appraisers who appraised the value of the damage. The insurance company thought that the house could be repaired, but in Cross’ opinion it could never be returned to what it was when he originally owned it. And that was what the policy said. They would return it to where it was when…before the explosion.

The next step in the dispute between Ray Cross and his insurance company, was something called an appraisal hearing. Both sides agree upon an umpire. Whose decision is binding on both sides. In Ray Cross’ case, the umpire gave him $26-thousand more than the insurance company first offered. Few people that know they can use that process, although it’s right in their insurance policies. But unless you live in British Columbia, your insurance company doesn’t even have to tell you about it.

After his experience, Cross says he knows what to do. And he’s written a book about how to get all the protection you purchased from your insurance company called Fire Insurance and You. He says home owners should get a certified copy of their insurance policy. Your insurance company sometimes gives you a generic policy, not one that applies to you. And read it carefully. Most people never read their policies. And if you must file a claim, get everything in writing. Don’t make verbal agreements.

If you want to look for public adjusters in your area, you should check the yellow pages under insurance: claims adjusters. Public adjusters usually specify in their ads that they work for policy holders only.

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