(Note: This Guest Blog is by Corey Harris, an attorney with Merlin Law Group in the Tampa, Florida, office. This is the third part in a series he is writing on post-loss duties).

While speaking to a potential client about a agent negligence claim, she told me that the individual she believed to be her agent for the past three years had turned out to be the real agent’s secretary. This struck me as extremely odd, especially since the woman had referred to the secretary as her agent in the secretary’s presence and had never been corrected. While this situation likely seldom arises, it does highlight a very important point, mainly, that most individuals are not very familiar with their insurance company and the hierarchy of employees and agents.

Many people rarely, if ever, have to submit a major insurance claim dealing with their property. The extent of their knowledge and involvement is sending in the premium check when due. Is it any wonder that the typical homeowner might be confused about who their insurance agent is and where they should send a notice of loss?

Possibly contemplating such confusion, some policies specifically state where the notice of loss should be sent. The language varies; it may be the home office or it may be the individual agent who sold you the policy. No matter who or where the policy designates, the policyholder should do their best to comply.

The situation becomes more complicated when the policy is silent or states that the notice should be given to an “authorized agent” of the insurer. Individuals who are authorized agents of an insurer have actual authority to conduct the business of the insurer. Therefore, notice provided to an authorized agent would normally be sufficient if the policy language allows as much. The appropriate authorized agent of an insurer may be spelled out in the policy or in some cases in relevant statutes, so reading and understanding these is always a good idea.

The plot thickens when the individual accepting the notice of loss is not an authorized agent of the insurer. Many times, direct employees of the insurer are not authorized agents and service of notice of loss on them may be ineffective. While this is never a good situation, the courts have provided some leeway when dealing with this type of case.

First, if the person accepting the notice would be deemed to be an authorized agent by a reasonable person, the individual may be deemed to have apparent authority to transact business on behalf of the insurer and, thus, the notice was effective. This apparent authority might come from the actions and representations of the insurer or the individual; either has the potential to impose apparent authority and cause the notice to be effective.

If a policyholder finds himself in a situation where he must submit a claim, he should read the policy first. Many times, the policy states specifically where the notice of loss should be sent. If it is not listed in the policy or the policy is ambiguous, it is never a bad idea to pick up the phone and call the insurance company. Your local agent might be able to help, and, if not, try the home office. Get an answer and follow up in writing to avoid any confusion later, and then send the notice to the designated person or place. Following these simple steps could prevent problems with the claim and keep the file from ever crossing an attorney’s desk.