Lawyer: Insurance companies not friends of Harvey victims
Dec. 2, 2017 at 9:48 p.m.
Updated Dec. 3, 2017 at 6 a.m.
PORT LAVACA - After 11 straight days of serving and protecting during Harvey's aftermath, Chief Deputy John Krause learned his own house was damaged and uninsured - by no fault of his own.
"They said, 'You don't have coverage,' and it felt like somebody had just pulled my intestines out," said Krause, who works for the Calhoun County Sheriff's Office. "I haven't felt settled since."
A miscommunication between his insurance and mortgage companies had caused his storm damage policy to be canceled - after 21 years of making payments. Krause was dumbfounded.
"They basically said, 'You are on your own,' when they were supposed to go to bat for me," he said.
Like many property owners in the Crossroads, Krause has battled long and hard with his insurance company to obtain proper compensation. In the meantime, the need to repair his leaking roof and splintered fence has caused him to spend about $5,000 of savings he raised by moonlighting in Crossroads rock bands.
For Krause, his situation was as frustrating as it was straightforward.
"When you pay your insurance, they should cover you," he said.
Crossroads attorneys agree and have lined up to help homeowners.
"At the end of the day, you have a homeowner (or) you have a business owner, and, really, all they want is to get their house or business put back together," said J. Michael Moore, principal attorney for the McAllen-based Moore Law Firm.
Moore recently offered a public information event in Victoria to educate property owners about how to keep insurance companies from getting the better of them.
Despite their often amusing commercials, relatable spokespeople and cute mascots, insurance companies are not their customers' friends, Moore said.
"Customers think these companies are going to do the right thing ... but the minute a claim comes around, we are waiting two to three months after the storm. Customers are confused, and they are getting frustrated."
Krause said that realization began to dawn on him after his insurance and mortgage companies blamed each other instead of helping him.
After he mentioned an attorney's name, his mortgage company's representative promised to resolve his problem. Krause said he was prepared to contact the attorney if the promise was not kept.
Sometimes, taking insurance companies to court is the only available option, said Crossroads attorney Alex Hernandez.
Since Harvey, he has reviewed "dozens and dozens" of cases from property owners with insurance woes.
"I'm getting everything from roofs to fences to boats," he said.
One boat owner consulting with Hernandez received a $2,000 payment from his insurance company for a $100,000 sailboat that required the replacement of its mast, riggings and other essential and expensive parts.
Underpaying claims, Hernandez said, is a common tactic used by insurance companies. Ideally, he said, companies should completely compensate policyholders for the cost of replacing or repairing the damaged property.
"They're never going to give you that," Hernandez said. "They think you are going to take the first $500 they give you. That's the way insurance companies have been doing business for many years."
Winning a lawsuit for a dishonest or bad-faith claim often begins with getting a second or even third opinion. While many insurance companies send their own adjusters to assess property damage, inexperience, dishonesty or laziness can result in undervaluing damage, Hernandez said.
Public adjusters, who, despite their job titles, work for private individuals, can give perspective to suspicious claims.
"If you get two public adjusters who say one thing, and the private adjuster (says another thing), well, you know where that goes. It's going to go to the courtroom," Hernandez said.
Winning a bad-faith claim lawsuit allows a plaintiff to seek not only the costs for repairs but also court costs, attorney fees and other damages decided by the court.
But a Texas bill put into effect Sept. 1 reduces the interest on late damage payments for insurance companies from 18 percent to 10 percent.
Nevertheless, property owners with concerns about their damage assessments should hire a public adjuster or another third-party assessor first and ask questions later, said licensed public adjuster James Matysek.
"It will cost you, but in the long run, it's the better decision to pay for alternative adjustment or assessment," he said. "When they turn around and try to sell their house, who is going to have to pay then?"
The problem may be more widespread than many Crossroads residents expect, he said.
"I've got dozens and dozens and dozens of cases, and every single claim I've gone on has been undervalued by at least 40 percent," he said.
Adjusters should always examine a home or building's interior - even if only roof damage is apparent. And if a roof is patched rather than replaced, getting another adjuster's opinion is essential.
If a property owner suspects an adjuster is being lazy, they very well could be correct, Matysek said.
Many adjusters rushed through their post-Harvey assessments to begin work in Florida after Hurricane Irma, he said.
And Victoria insurance agent Donna Easley agreed.
"We lost a lot of our adjusters to the next hurricane," she said. "A lot of reports were not completed."
She also cited the widespread damage caused by Harvey as a reason for delays. As of Nov. 15, the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association had received 72,902 claims and the Texas Department of Insurance had extended its appraisal request deadline for policyholders from 60 to 120 days.
Hiring a local insurance agent, such as Easley, whose parents started her business in 1958, can help to ensure payment is made promptly and correctly.
"Your insurance is only as good as your agent," she said. "You should know who your agent is and that they will fight for you and assist you in your claims processing."
The migration of adjusters also has made many Crossroads property owners endure excruciatingly long waiting times for their checks to arrive.
Victoria father and homeowner Manny Garcia Jr., 41, said he and his family have waited for more than a month to receive much-needed money.
"It's been hell," he said.
Garcia said he has had to temporarily stop home repairs, which he previously paid for with savings, until his insurance company pays out.
Garcia's home was made uninhabitable after sustaining damage to its roof, walls, plumbing and ceilings.
Although he received a check about three weeks ago, he was unable to cash it because his insurance company made it out to him and a former owner, who is now deceased. He is awaiting a second, corrected check as he and his family continue to live in a Victoria hotel.
"I got to just be patient," he said. "I ain't got no choice."