A very fine insurance defense attorney, Brian Hunter, made a comment to yesterday’s post, Do Insurance Companies Overpay Claims? with the following observation:

"Second, not only can claims be overpaid, they can be underpaid…."

Assuming this is true, and it probably is based on the law of averages, how can we have any meaningful data? What is the standard against which a claim is judged over- or underpaid? Is it the proof of loss, or the public adjuster’s estimate, or the appraisal award, or something else? Even if we use the most presumably objective of these, i.e., an appraisal umpire’s award, as a standard, then a good many claims I have seen resolved in that manner have been simultaneously underpaid by insurers and grossly inflated by the insured and/or public adjuster.

Of course, in most cases, an appraisal award is a legal fiction that may or may not bear a rational relationship to the amount necessary to repair the property; but it is certainly and merely an estimate. Frequently, the umpire’s award is an average of two competing estimates. Regrettably, few court-appointed umpires have any specialized training in the construction fields, and many have never written an estimate of their own nor done any kind of construction work. Maybe a better standard is needed.

What we do not have is reliable data in Florida during the past several years comparing claim payments with amounts spent by policyholders to actually accomplish like kind and quality repairs. (If I am wrong, I would love to see a source.) Changing the law to require insurers to pay actual expenditures, and not mere estimates of replacement cost (some honest, some not, all estimates nevertheless), would bring greater certainty to all the parties, I think. Yet this is opposed by the same folks, i.e. public adjusters, bemoaning the lack of accuracy in claim adjustment.

In my reply, I noted the following:

However, many insurance companies have adopted a claims management practice which rates and audits claims handlers for overpayment of claims—these are often called "leakage" reports, analysis, etc. So, the major insurers do try to prevent overpayment of claims through various processes. These claims management techniques are not often reported in the press.

It is foolish to think that insurance companies do not track and audit closed claims files. They do so, in part, so they can minimize overpayments.

In Is Claims Management Only Concerned About Overpaying Claims?, I made a very important point regarding the purpose of “leakage” reports that track these overpayment statistics:

Nowhere in the article is there any mention of a problem caused by adjusters underpaying their customers’ claims. I first came across the term "leakage" in a McKinsey and Company analysis of the USAA claims organization done in the late 1980’s. The analysis focused on various changes which needed to be made so that USAA could recover "opportunities" caused by "leakage" in the claims handling process. Again, the study never discussed any problem with adjusters cheating customers by underpaying claims. In all the management metrics that I have ever read, I have never seen one where a claims manager received a bonus because the unit or group he supervised had the lower "underpayments" to customers.

Instead, claims management is for reducing claims severity or lowering the loss ratio to premiums. Indeed, has anybody seen an industry article questioning that the claims industry should be concerned about underpaying claims? The entire culture seems to be about driving down claims payments rather than getting the payment right. I am not picking only on State Farm. Most major insurance carriers have some form of re-inspection. The former re-inspector explained it to me in his videotape.

Typically, he would go out with less experienced adjusters or adjusters whose "severity payments" (the average amount paid on claims) was above levels acceptable to management. He would critique the claims handler’s activities to show where claims payments could have been reduced so that new adjusters would learn and the higher paying adjusters would be brought back in line with the group. I asked him if State Farm ever returned money to a policyholder where he found a mistake that resulted in an underpayment. He responded:

“Chip, you don’t get it. My job was not to make certain that the payments were right. My job was to make certain that the problem of overpayments was stopped.”

People often ask me how our law practice stays so busy. With a claims management overly concerned about one side of claims inaccuracy, the answer is pretty obvious.