Moment of Truth
A story of loss, lawsuits and the value of a good agent
July 1, 2008
By Scott Westcott
Countless times David Weidner had seen nightly news footage of house fires. He’d feel a pang of sympathy for the families huddled in blankets, helplessly watching their homes—their dreams—go up in smoke. Like most of us, he figured it’d never happen to him.
Fortunately, he had an Erie Insurance agent who knew it just might. And on the night of July 17, 2002, it-will-never-happen-to-me came blazing through the door.
Fire raced through the home and five others lining a stately block in the historic Capitol Hill section of Washington D.C. The flames burned intensely enough to singe Weidner’s forehead as he stared on in disbelief. Firefighters from 13 brigades battled the blaze for more than five hours.
When the fire was finally snuffed, Weidner and Bill Gannon, who also operated a consulting business out of the home, surveyed the smoldering ashes that remained. Furniture, office equipment, clothing, pictures, art and keepsakes were destroyed, scorched or ruined by smoke or water.
The right coverage
Long before the fire, their ERIE agent, Tim Schaefer of Schaefer Insurance Services in Germantown, Md., had recommended ERIE’s Ultracover policy to cover their home and a personal catastrophe liability policy to protect from ensuing issues. The Ultracover alone would pay the full replacement cost to rebuild the historic home to its original condition. That’s important because the full replacement cost of a home is the amount necessary to repair a damaged or destroyed home to the same or better condition than it was prior to the damage. It’s provided under Ultracover as long as the policyholder decides to repair or rebuild.
At best, it eased the pain of Weidner and Gannon’s devastating loss.
“You really don’t realize just how much stuff you have until it’s all gone,” Gannon says. “Unless you have good records, it’s difficult to remember all of your belongings, and when and where you bought them.”
Before any work could start on the house, Weidner and Gannon went through the tedious process of creating an inventory so they could replace the contents that were lost in addition to the house itself.
Rebuilding was just as tedious. Because of their home’s location, they had to comply with stringent historical standards. The cost of full replacement soared well beyond what they had paid for the house only a few years before. Had they not had full replacement coverage, it would have been nearly impossible to restore the home to its original condition.
Catastrophes of the Court
How much does your
Depending on the level of coverage you’ve purchased, ERIE’s home, auto and boat policies can help cover legal costs if you’re taken to court.
But how much will your policy cover? And is it enough if the case doesn’t end in your favor? That’s when it’s important to have an umbrella policy.
Terry McConnell, ERIE’s manager of Personal Lines Underwriting, explains the benefit of ERIE’s Mastercover Policy is that it offers a higher level of financial security in case you are sued for an accident.
“Accidents can happen to anyone at anytime. Sometimes these accidents will be serious, and result in costly lawsuits that can threaten all of your financial security. An umbrella policy offers additional protection from this at an affordable price,” McConnell says. “Plus, it provides worldwide liability protection—covering you wherever you go.”
In this litigious age of multi-million dollar lawsuits, insurance experts and financial planners say umbrella policies, or personal liability coverage, should be standard practice. Yet studies show that fewer than 15 percent of Americans purchase umbrella policies, which typically have annual premiums under $200 a year for $1 million or more in coverage.
Talk to your ERIE agent if you’re interested in more information about personal liability coverage and how to add it to your current policies.
About two years after the fire, Weidner and Gannon were regaining a sense of normalcy. Then trouble came knocking. They were served with papers stating that several insurance companies were suing them for negligence. The companies claimed that candles left burning on the deck had sparked the blaze.
The suit, seeking $1.1 million, was a painful blow. Investigators had never determined a specific cause of the fire—and it likely will never be determined, says Bill Sennett, an ERIE litigation specialist based in Maryland.
“We went through two kinds of hell,” Weidner says. “The fire was one thing, but then to be sued was quite another.”
Yet, while the lawsuit caused stress, it needn’t have caused worry. Weidner and Gannon had the additional protection of the personal catastrophe liability policy. The PCL policy (also known as an umbrella policy) they had purchased now provided an additional $1 million in coverage. It would be more than enough to fully cover, if needed, the $1.1 million in damages that were being sought.
“If we had not had the umbrella policy and would have been found legally liable, it could have been financially devastating,” Weidner says. “The stress alone of not knowing if you would have to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars would have been hard to handle over the course of so much time.”
Rising from the ashes
Today, the historic Capitol Hill home has been beautifully rebuilt and refurbished. Hardwood floors gleam and many of the antiques and other precious items have been restored or replaced.
Weidner and Gannon are now self-described insurance advocates. They require tenants at their rental properties to have ERIE renter’s insurance. And they preach to family and friends the importance of comprehensive ERIE homeowners coverage backed up by a good umbrella policy and a home inventory.*
“When I think what some neighbors went through trying to get action from their insurance company,” says Weidner, “I know that we are fortunate.”
Scott Westcott is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer, who’s recent work has appeared in Parents, Inc., and Woman’s Day. He resides in Erie, Pa.
*The Insurance Information Institute provides free software that makes it easy to keep a home inventory. Check it out at www.knowyourstuff.org.