Three years after a deadly wildfire ripped through the Mountain Shadows subdivision, some homeowners still are fighting insurance companies to cover what they say are reasonable expenses.
While some homeowners say they’re pleased with fast response and customer service, others claim insurance companies employed “bullying tactics” to avoid paying for damage from the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire that destroyed 346 homes and killed two people.
“This is a story of very well-educated, responsible homeowners who have resources and who have meticulously documented their claims and have done everything right. And they can’t get a fair hearing,” said Kerri Olivier, who works for United Policy Holders, a group that represents homeowners in insurance disputes. “This is a big issue.”
Some property owners have resorted to filing civil lawsuits against their insurers; some hired Dan Rector of Colorado Springs as their attorney.
“They are being violated for the second time,” Rector said. “When you hear the same story over and over and over, you know it’s sincere.”
Rector has seen that people unhappy with their insurance resolutions fall into one of two categories. The coverage was insufficient and policy holders were ill-informed by their insurance companies, or they did not receive what they believed was a reasonable price for replacement of lost items.
“What’s frustrating is that people believe as long as they pay their premium, they’re going to be all right,” Rector said. “Then they find out it’s not working that way.”
Filing a claim
After the fire, many insurance companies immediately provided adjusters, appraisers and agents to discuss damage and personal property losses and values with homeowners. Some immediately paid substantial amounts.
Other insurers required homeowners to list every lost item, providing date purchased, the item’s make and model, amount paid for the item and replacement cost.
After listing all the details, the insurance adjuster responded with an estimate including depreciated value.
The insurance company might have hired a company like Enservio to value personal property lost or damaged, always much lower than the replacement cost for the items, said Olivier. She said one homeowner lost a Dyson Animal V6 vacuum in the fire. The vacuum was bought for $600 at Costco three years before the fire. The information was given to the insurance adjuster, who forwarded it to Enservio.
“[Then] someone in Pakistan or wherever looks it up on the Internet and finds on Target [website] animal hair [roller] sticky papers sold for $9.99. They depreciate it 30 percent, so you end up getting $3 for your $600 Dyson Animal.”
Another Mountain Shadows homeowner lost an antique German Steuben crystal bowl, and the company changed the description to a Pyrex bowl, valued it at $9.99, then depreciated it 85 percent, Olivier said.
“So she was getting $1.59 for a bowl that should be worth $1,700,” Olivier said, adding homeowners can appeal valuations, but that takes time, tenacity and patience.
Enservio did not respond to calls requesting comment.
‘A very, very, very fine house’
Ann and Ron Clarkson of 6030 Ashton Park Place rebuilt at the same address after the fire destroyed their home.
“He tried to screw us from the very first,” Ron said, referring to the American Family Insurance adjuster’s price to remove the home’s ashy debris. Following the adjuster’s direction, Ron received several bids in the $15,000-$16,000 range to complete the job.
American Family’s adjuster then said he’d found a company to do the job for $10,000, Ron said. However, the insurance company’s bid did not include the cost to remove the foundation.
“I went over his head, so they sent me a check for $16,000. That set the course for battle for the next year and a half,” Ron said.
During that time, Ron produced an extensive Excel spreadsheet three inches thick with their items lost, make and model, estimated current value, date and place purchased and the original purchase price.
“We had to reconstruct the whole house by memory. The carpet, tiles, faucets …” he said. “If you want [to be repaid for] all of it, you have to list every spoon … every tool.”
Then, the company depreciated the items’ costs and compared them to Walmart stock.
“Most people waved the white flag. We weren’t going to do that,” Ron said. “I pity the person who doesn’t have the fortitude to not back down.”
The Clarksons received their final claim check three days before they closed on their new, rebuilt home. Eventually, they were satisfied with the final results of their claims, because they had a 25 percent bonus clause in their insurance policy.
“We got that, but we had to fight and fight and fight,” Ron said. “Our situation was a nightmare … as bad as the fire. The process was unimaginable.”
Because some homeowners affected by the Waldo Canyon fire could not meet the one- or two-year deadline to file a lawsuit against their insurance companies, the Colorado Legislature extended the deadline to three years after the loss.
The fire circled Jan and Ron Johnson’s home at 2430 Brogan Bluffs Drive but did not destroy it. Instead, the home had partial damage, and the Johnsons have been arguing with State Farm since the fire.
“We’ve been with State Farm for over 40 years. Never missed a payment. They treated us very badly,” said Ron Johnson.
“Jan is one of those ‘partial-loss people’ who has really been put through the ringer with delay-and-deny tactics, bad adjusters with State Farm,” Olivier said. “They’ve had a lot of health problems in the process. It just beats you up.”
Discrepancies started early with the Johnsons. The insurance company required the couple to get a note from their doctors saying their health prevented them from staying in the house. Still, the company denied the claim. The Johnsons stayed in a hotel and eventually, through a third party, State Farm paid for it.
The Johnsons also disputed claims related to their fence, tile grout, doors, painting, lights outside the home, carpet, cleaning and more.
They hired consultants to test their home for toxins, and the tests came out positive.
Only after they took that step did they get paid by State Farm, they said.
“None of that happened in a timely manner,” Ron Johnson said. “Thank goodness we had a good contractor … and he really helped.”
The Johnsons filed a civil lawsuit against State Farm, trying to claim the money the insurer has not paid. State Farm has paid the Johnsons several thousand dollars to date, but has shorted them 42 percent the value of the losses, they said.
Rector advised people to remain proactive and “not sit down and wait for something to happen, because that’s like waiting for the second coming of the Almighty.
“You have to stay involved,” he said. “You know, the classic squeaky wheel [gets the grease].”
Ron Clarkson advised people to be proactive — research the companies and the payouts they’ve given after catastrophic events.
“Some companies paid out more than others. It had to do with the adjuster,” he said. “I don’t want to reward [American Family] with our premiums, with how we were treated.”
“We must be aware and personally responsible,” said Olivier.
“We cannot rely on government to restore our private property and belongings.”