(Note: This Guest Blog is by Corey Harris, an attorney with Merlin Law Group in the Tampa, Florida, office. This is the second part in a series he is writing on post-loss duties).
Normally, the first post-loss obligation that a policyholder encounters is the duty to provide an insurer with notice that a loss has occurred. While policies and the statutes of the particular jurisdiction vary, both tend to spell out the procedure by which notice should be delivered. Both are important sources of information and it is necessary to read and understand them.
Much like the reasoning behind a proof of loss, the duty to provide the insurer with notice that a loss has occurred is intended to put the insurer on notice and enable it to investigate whether coverage exists. One of the most fundamental issues in dealing with notice is who will be able to provide notice of the loss to an insurer.
Most policy language contemplates that notice of a loss will be given by the insured. The language of a notice of loss provision may state that “you” (meaning the insured) must give prompt notice of any loss. Others may state that “you or your representative” must give prompt notice of any loss. Generally, courts have held that notice provided by an agent or representative of the insured is sufficient, even if the policy language reads as “you,” as long the agent/representative is authorized by the insured to give notice. See Johnson v. Westhoff Sand Co., Inc., 62 P. 3d 685 (Ka. App. 2003), KPFF, Inc. v. California Union Ins. Co., 66 Cal. Rptr. 2d 36 (Ca. 1st Dist. 1997),
Courts have found a variety of instances where an individual other than the insured may give notice for the policyholder. For example, a policyholder’s attorney may provide notice of the loss to the insurer. Thomas v. Atlanta Cas. Co., 558 S.E.2d 432 (Ga. App. 2001)(holding notice from the insured’s attorney was sufficient as long as the notice was promptly provided and sufficient to notify the insurer with actual knowledge of a claim or suit).
In some circumstances, notice from another insurer may be enough to satisfy the notice requirement. For instance, in the case of excess insurance polices, notice by the first layer carrier to the excess carrier may be considered enough to fulfill the policyholder’s obligations. The determinative issues are usually whether the notice was enough to provide actual knowledge of the claim and whether the notice is sufficient under both the language of the policy and any relevant statute.
Also, courts have found that notice provided by one insured may be enough to fulfill the notice requirement for other insureds. The most common example of this occurs when a property is mortgaged. In such a situation, the mortgagor and any mortgagee have the right to provide notice to the insurer of a loss. It is not hard to imagine an instance where the mortgage company might provide notice of a loss to the insurer before the homeowner, or vise versa. In these situations, some courts have held that as long as the notice was timely and sufficient to give the insurer actual notice of the claim, notice provided by the first or even second mortgagee will provide notice for the other insureds, even if they do not notify the insurer themselves. Goodman v. Quaker City Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 241 F.2d 432 (1st Cir. 1957).
Finally, some jurisdictions have held that a loss report from the policyholder’s insurance agent or claims adjuster is sufficient to fulfill the requirement for notice, even if the policy specifies that notice be provided in writing by the insured. Security Ins. Co. of New Haven v. Dazey, 78 F.2d 537 (7th Cir. 1935). Relying on the insurance agent or claims adjuster can be dangerous, however, because some courts have held that their failure to provide timely notification to the insurer may bar recovery even though the policyholder relied on them to do so. American Mut. Liability Ins. Co. v. Beatrice Companies, Inc., 924 F. Supp. 861 (N.D. Ill. 1996).
While there may be recourse for the insured in a suit for negligence, this is a headache that is easily avoided if the insured does not rely on a third party to provide notice of the loss. In the end, providing notice of a loss to an insurer is very important to having your claim quickly and fairly adjusted and paid. A policyholder should always notify the insurer as soon as possible of any loss and, if possible, in writing. Even if written notice is not required or not possible, any verbal notices should be followed up in writing so that there is no question later about whether the notice was timely, sufficient, or even occurred at all. Taking a little extra time to do things properly can help the claim move towards a more favorable resolution.