Keep Claims From Becoming Catastrophes

By Christopher E. Carter, P.E.

In early summer of 2002, an 18-year veteran of the U.S. Forest Service started the largest wildfire in Colorado history. The Hayman fire burned 137,760 acres, 133 homes, 466 outbuildings, and one commercial structure at a cost of $39,100,000. It took 21 local, state and federal agencies, and over 2,500 firefighters 40 calendar days to control.

In mid-summer, this year, a well-known and respected Colorado homebuilder settled a class-action lawsuit for nearly $40 million, which was the largest settlement of a construction defects lawsuit in Colorado history.

What do these two events have in common? They both started out small, and fueled by irrational passions, quickly became catastrophes.

Anyone who’s been the target of litigation can surely empathize with those who have watched seemingly minor claims spiral out of control. But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if there were some easy things you could do to limit the potential for a runaway train?

I’m talking, of course, about claims handling. Whether it’s warranty claims, insurance claims, workmanship claims, etc., here are three ways that may help adjusters control the uncontrollable.

  1. Hang Out With A Jury Of Your Peers . Handle the claim as if the future jury for the case was shadowing you. Imagine them delivering the claim to you, and then following you around – watching everything you do, and everything you say to adjust the claim. Don’t worry about confidentiality or privilege; it’s all discoverable anyway. Conduct yourself honorably, and you will do well when the opposing attorney reconstructs your conduct from depositions, exhibits, and the testimony of witnesses.
  2. Be Accountable And Transparent . People can tell right away when you’re hiding something or not being forthcoming. Do what you say you’re going to do. Stick to deadlines. Return calls as soon as possible. Let them clearly see how you will help them, and how you will treat them fairly. Handle the claim as if your own mother filed it.
  3. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate . Keep them informed every step of the way. When people don’t hear from you, they think you are ignoring them, don’t care about them, or worse, hoping they will go away. Tell them your plan and your timetable, and stick to it. If the plan changes, communicate that too.
  4. Oh yeah, one more thing. Document Everything For The File. Keep a log of who was called when, and what was said. Summarize conversations with a letter, fax, email, or a note to the file. Collect all in-going and out going correspondence. In doing this, you will get to provide many enlightening exhibits, if the claim goes south, which can be very effective as fire retardant.

A little self-discipline, in these areas, should leave you with fewer wildfires on your desk, and less time in the hot seat.