Photograph taken during the Waldo Canyon Fire

After a fire loss you would expect your insurance company to complete a full and fair adjustment of the damages, right? So did the Normans, however, as admitted by a corporate representative of State Farm, “had State Farm not received additional information [from an industrial hygienist], the payments made in July 2012 would have been the settlement of the Normans’ claim” stemming from smoke and soot damage to their home as a result of the infamous Waldo Canyon fire of 2012 in Colorado.1 Eventually State Farm did pay a lot more in covered damages in May of 2013.

What additional information did State Farm require? A report from Industrial Hygienist.2 Industrial Hygienists can play a vital role in determining how and if a property can be made safe after a fire in through an investigation of the resulting smoke and soot damage. Unfortunately for the Norman’s, State Farm failed to retain an Industrial Hygienist before producing its July 2012 estimate, forcing its insured to first shoulder that burden and the cost of retaining one in pursuit a full and fair investigation of the damages to their house.

The Normans’ fire case is not the first I have seen where an insurance company has only engaged an industrial hygienist after its insured. Whether purposefully or through lack of education, insurance adjusters just miss this often vital part of a fire loss investigation. State Farm’s representative testified that State Farm “believed it had identified the damage to the Normans’ home [in July 2012] and that there was no reason for needing an additional expert inspection.” The Colorado Federal District Court did not agree with State Farm’s position, providing that:

A reasonable juror could [] conclude that, because the Normans’ home was in substantially the same condition in July 2012 as it was in April 2013, engineering and industrial hygienist inspections conducted earlier in the claims handling process would have revealed the same information upon which State Farm based its May 2013 payment, which in turn could have led to an earlier payment of the additional $85,574.43. Thus, a factfinder could conclude that State Farm failed to conduct a prompt, reasonable investigation of the underlying damage to the Normans’ home resulting in the delay and/or denial of a portion of the Normans’ claim.

The health hazards that may result from soot are just too significant to ignore. According to the National Cancer Institute, “soot is a byproduct of the incomplete burning of organic (carbon-containing) materials, such as wood, fuel oil, plastics, and household refuse. The fine black or brown powder that makes up soot may contain a number of carcinogens, including arsenic, cadmium, and chromium.”3 If the smoke and soot are not properly remedied, they could result in personal consequences as severe as skin, lung, esophageal, and bladder cancer.4 Smoke and soot travels and will penetrate areas of your property not visible to the naked eye, potentially causing damage to insulation, electrical wiring, HVAC, and other parts of your house.5 Not only do the hidden smoke and soot present a health and safety risk, but they can also present the opportunity for early failure of the electrical and mechanical components of your property. As reported to State Farm by the Norman’s, their treadmill began failing after the soot and smoke intrusion into their home. For those reasons, if your insurance company does not retain an industrial hygienist as a part of their adjustment of your fire claim, ask why not. Retaining an industrial hygienist to investigate the full extent of smoke and soot damage after a fire loss is not a novel concept, and it could mean the difference between the continued health of yourself and your property.
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1 Norman v. State Farm Fire and Cas. Co., no. 13-1643, 2014 WL 6478046 (Dist. Colo. 2014).
2 According to the American Board of Industrial Hygiene, industrial hygiene is the science of protecting and enhancing the health and safety of people at work and in their communities. Health and safety hazards cover a wide range of chemical, physical, biological and ergonomic stressors. Those dedicated to anticipating, recognizing, evaluating and controlling those hazards are known as Industrial Hygienists. They are professionals dedicated to the well-being of people – at work, at home and in the community.
3 https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/soot
4 https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/soot
5 http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/eh/docs/emergunit/cleanFireDamage.pdf