Monthly Archives: May 2016

Car After a Natural Disaster

The night Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast, Mandee Bellarosa and her roommates were hunkered down in their multilevel condominium in Hoboken, New Jersey. At 9 pm, the power went out, and shortly afterward they went to bed.

Bellarosa woke just two hours later when a friend called with bad news. Water was already entering his garage, where she had earlier parked her 2009 Volkswagen Jetta, hoping to keep it out of harm’s way. Despite the blackout, she could see that the streets below her windows were fast becoming rivers.

It wasn’t until the following afternoon that the water had receded enough for Bellarosa to venture outside, and even then it was a knee-deep trudge to check on the status of her car. The Jetta actually looked OK, but when she opened the driver’s door, water poured out.

Car shopping would probably be the last thing on your mind if you were caught in a natural disaster. But events like the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan or this year’s so-called Frankenstorm can destroy tens of thousands of cars in little more than the blink of an eye, leaving their owners no choice but to pick a replacement vehicle as they start to rebuild their lives.

Even a lesser calamity — a toppled oak or a deer leaping from a dark wood — can unexpectedly leave someone without wheels, while life continues forward at full speed.

In these situations, the last thing you want is any more stress or drama. With that in mind, here are a few basic strategies — from filing car insurance claims to car shopping — to get you back on the road as swiftly and painlessly as possible.

Determining if Your Car Insurance Covers Natural Disasters
You’ll want to establish what’s covered by your car insurance policy before making any big decisions. “If your car was damaged in [a storm like] Sandy, it is likely covered if you have comprehensive coverage as part of your auto insurance policy,” says J. Robert Hunter, director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America. Comprehensive coverage — which is sometimes known as “other than collision” insurance — “covers many things that could happen in a storm, including water or flood damage, falling objects including trees, signs and such, and wind damage,” he says.

People with newer cars usually have this coverage. But Hunter also advises those with older cars, who may be thinking of dropping collision from their policies, to “keep the usually much less costly comprehensive coverage.” It can be especially important if they live in areas prone to floods, high winds, earthquakes or other calamities.

“File your claim fast, as they are usually settled on a first-come, first-served basis,” he advises. This is critically important after a widespread disaster like Sandy, since insurers can quickly become overwhelmed with claims. Bellarosa, for instance, has gone weeks without a final settlement for her totaled Jetta despite almost daily calls to her adjuster.

Car Accident Claims

When Apple programmer Kit Cutler’s 2012 Ford Focus was slammed from behind by a silver Lexus, the hit was so hard that it shoved his car into the Honda Accord in front of him. Although no one was hurt in the accident, the driver of the silver Lexus drove off without providing insurance information to anyone. Cutler and the Accord’s driver exchanged insurance information, filed reports with the police and went home. The accident was only slightly more confusing to Cutler than the insurance claims process that came after.

That car insurance claims process baffles nearly everyone. “Most people only file a claim every eight to 10 years,” says Jeanne Salvatore, vice president for public affairs and consumer spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute, an industry-supported, non-lobbying group dedicated to improving public understanding of insurance.

Cutler filed his claim by phone. “In that initial interview, the agent told me very quickly that I wasn’t at fault,” he says. Then she asked him questions about the accident and typed his answers into an online form. Cutler checked and verified the information.

“They go through it all very quickly, so you have to pay attention,” he says. “I hadn’t been in an accident before, and I didn’t know what was going on.”

This article explains what insurance companies are doing behind the scenes in the wake of an automotive mishap or collision. It also discusses what happens if you’re hit by an uninsured or underinsured driver.

Immediately After the Accident
If you’re involved in an accident, “The first thing to do is let your insurance company know you were in an accident and provide all the specifics of it,” Salvatore says. “From the second of the accident, keep good records.” Use your smartphone (or keep a notebook in your glovebox) and write down the time, date, plate number, make and model of their car, their registration information, license number, name, insurance company and contact information.

If the police are on the scene, Salvatore says, take their names and badge numbers. Get the names of any witnesses and note whether emergency medical personnel were called. “Photos are helpful. Take pictures of the car and the license plate,” she says. “If the claim is straightforward, you may not need any of it, but if a problem occurs, you need all the information possible.” Again, with the prevalence of smartphones these days, this is all quite easy to do.

From filing the claim to resolving it, every insurance company’s methods are different. However, the essentials of the process are fairly standard. You’ll only see part of the process, though. All negotiations between insurance companies about payments and reimbursements will be carried on behind the scenes.

Filing Your Claim
As with Cutler’s case, it’s standard for your insurance carrier to call soon after you report an accident. During that call, “We’ll match the person to their policy, determine what happened in the accident, find out about any injuries, the extent of damage to both vehicles and get some demographic information,” says Mike Flato, a process business leader for Progressive Insurance. “We’ll make sure everyone is OK; if not, what happened and then who’ll handle the medical claims.”

After a claim is filed, your insurance company assigns you a claims adjustor, who is your contact from then on. Adjustors coordinate teams that look at medical reports, investigate the accident, speak with witnesses, view the scene, examine the vehicle damage, manage all the repairs and any medical treatments, check all coverages (how much your policy pays for medical injuries and property damages) and ultimately determine fault.

Companies Use Facebook for Claims Investigations

In the hours after a car accident, filing a claim with your auto insurance company is one of the first steps you should take. But auto insurance industry insiders say a smart second step is giving social media accounts the once-over to prevent all or part of that claim from being denied.

In the past five years, the use of social media has exploded within the insurance industry, says Frank Darras, an insurance attorney in Ontario, California, who represents plaintiffs in suits against insurance companies. Because social media Web sites provide a real-time examination of users’ lifestyles, insurance companies, claims adjusters and attorneys have begun to monitor and mine them as a valuable source of claims-investigation evidence. Insurers are reviewing information found on such social media sites as Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Foursquare, Google Plus and Pinterest, and applying it to auto claims, says Chicago personal injury lawyer Michael Helfand.

“This happens all the time,” he says.

Facebook is used in almost every claim now, especially when there is an injury. “Checking social media accounts has become one of the first things an insurance company or adjuster will do when you file a claim,” adds Darras. Especially when any injuries stem from the accident.

Claims Investigation by Social Media
Part of the new claims-investigation process is for an adjuster, agent or insurance company to look for the Facebook, Twitter or other social media account of a person claiming bodily injury stemming from an accident, Helfand says. They’re looking for proof that the person is filing a fraudulent claim, he says.

If the part of your accident claim is for a back injury and you share post-accident pictures of you golfing, surfing or playing ball with the kids, your claim could be denied.

“Over the years, social media has killed a bunch of claims,” says Helfand.

“Almost every insurance company has a special investigation unit (SIU), and policyholders should work on the assumption that SIUs will look into questionable or fraudulent claims,” says Michael Barry, vice president of media relations for the Insurance Information Institute.

“Mining social media for clues is one of the fastest-growing areas of insurance-fraud investigation,” says James Quiggle of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud in a report published in 2012.

While insurance adjusters or agents may not look into the social media accounts of every person who files a claim, they will definitely dig into social media if they have any reason to suspect a fraudulent claim.

“It’s simply part of the due diligence in investigating a case, because so many people are brazen or dumb enough to say one thing to an insurance adjuster while at the same time telling the world something else,” Helfand says. “It’s not unusual for a person to tell the adjuster and doctor how much their back hurts and then post photos from their softball league.

“Facebook and other social media sites have become a great tool for fighting claims because the ‘look at me’ nature of social media causes people to shoot themselves in the foot,” he says.

A claims adjuster will also stick directly to the language you use in the claim. If you report that you’re unable to lift more than 20 pounds, but a picture on social media shows you doing otherwise, Darras says you can expect the claim will be denied.