The staff at Able Claims Service Inc., an independent insurance adjustment company here, has seen its share of minor disasters. On any given day, one of Able Claims Services adjusters might be found climbing onto a roof to assess storm damage, crawling under a house to check for rotten boards after a water leak, or counting chickens along the side of a highway after a tractor-trailer overturns.
Weve had everything from hanging meat to motorcycles, says Bruce Mountjoy, the companys president and majority owner. Located in the Tapio Center, at 104 S. Freya, Able Claims Service evaluates property, casualty, and commercial trucking insurance claims for insurance companies and self-insured clients. The companys three adjusters, including Mountjoy, investigate the claims and determine appropriate monetary reimbursement.
Our job is to deliver the product, he says.
Mountjoy, who recently bought out co-founder Art Cockburns share of Able Claims and now owns the company with a silent partner, says the company has about 60 regular clients. As many as eight adjusters have been employed at Able Claims at any given time since Mountjoy and Cockburn founded the company in 1979, but Mountjoy says the company intentionally stays small.
Its a conscious decision on our part, he says, adding that he prefers to focus on being thorough with each claim.
Able Claims has revenues of between $400,000 and $550,000 a year, depending on how many adjusters are on staff, he says. Mountjoy says the adjusters are always busy, handling 350 to 400 claims a year between them.
In the Spokane area, there are more than 150 independent and staff adjusters, not counting the staffs of large insurers such as Seattle-based Safeco Corp., says adjuster Carl Otholt, who also is the current president of the Spokane Adjusters Association.
Able Claims covers a geographical area that encompasses Washington as far west as Wenatchee and as far southwest as Yakima, Idaho almost all the way south to Boise, the northeast corner of Oregon, and Montana to just east of Kalispell and just east of Butte.
Armed with such tools as a digital camera, a tape measure, a moisture meter, and a tape recorder, the companys employees trek to the scenes of crashes, floods, or fires. The company aims to be on scene within four hours, working to determine what happened, and whether its covered by a customers policy. The adjusters also determine the appropriate compensation for the claim, researching the cost of repair or replacement of any damaged property, and calling in experts if necessary.
Otholt gives an example of a claim for the loss of cheese when a refrigerated truck was too cold and much of the cheese froze. Able Claims Service flew in a cheese expert from Wisconsin to determine which cheese products were destroyed. Otholt says he learned a lot about how to determine the quality of cheese on that assignment.
Theres an expert on everything, he says.
Another big claim involved the wreck of a shipment of Harley-Davidson motorcycles on Lookout Pass on Interstate 90 at the Idaho-Montana border.
Sometimes just getting to a job site is an adventure, Otholt says. To get to a particular property, he says he once had to ride in a boat so small his hands could drag along in the water on both sides, and he recently had to hike a mile through wintry Boundary, Wash., near the Canadian border, to visit the still-smoking scene of a house fire that fire trucks couldnt get to.
There were still embers burning, he says.
Insurance companies hire Able Claims Service for several reasons, Mountjoy says. Many companies now dont have their own field adjusters because training is expensive and turnover is high, he says. Sometimes, an insurance companys adjusters are too busy to handle all the claims the company might have at a given time. He says insurance companies generally handle small claims themselves, but frequently hire outside help for large property claims or commercial auto claims.
Mountjoy says insurers typically assign independent adjusters to work cases that involve hostile people, larger potential cost for the insurer, unusual claims, and those that must be dealt with quickly to reduce losses. Independent adjusters also frequently are hired to research claims an insurer believes might not be covered under a policy, he says.
Among the things that Able Claims Service might investigate are bills generated for catastrophic accidents such as forest fires sparked by campfires. He says a person in such a situation commonly would receive a fire suppression bill so large it would exceed the liability coverage of a home insurance policy, which he says is typically $100,000 or $300,000.
In such a case, an adjusters job would be to review the bill to ensure the charges are reasonable, because a government entity will include the cost of mobilizing a lot of equipment and people in such a bill. Sometimes he says, the bill will include something like the whole cost of a piece of heavy equipment, when the charge should be for the cost of using that equipment for a day.
Sometimes Mountjoy is called to be an independent party in a dispute-settlement process called an appraisal, which is a type of arbitration used to settle claim adjustments disputed by policyholders. In that process, each side retains an appraiser to present its side to an arbitrator. Mountjoy says that process is the only way a policyholder can seek to change a disputed claim once its been adjusted.
Mountjoy says most claims are not disputed, because the policyholder has been involved with the adjuster throughout the process. He says his employees have to be sensitive to all the factors involved in the claims they investigate.
Mountjoy says good people skills are essential, as the emotions are high in the aftermath of a disaster or accident, and adjusters are put in the sensitive position of putting a value on a lifetime of possessions. He says policyholders look to the insurance adjuster to guide them through the process of getting reimbursed. Theres a lot of give and take with claimants, who may want to take the opportunity to upgrade their possessions when they have to replace them, or when insurers must try to put a price on sentimental property, such as photographs and collectibles.
At some point everything has a value. You just have to find it, Mountjoy says, adding that usually by the time the process is done, the claimant at least understands how the dollar amount was determined.
Otholt says his college courses in social work prepared him for the people side of the business. Adjuster Janet Groom, the other adjuster at Able Claims Service, says she sometimes is cast in the role of confessor by claimants. The adjusters always must advise people their statements are being recorded, and they seek documentation such as photos of a house if they think someone might be inflating a claim, she says. If the adjusters suspect fraud, they either report it to the insurance company or sometimes directly to the authorities.
Mountjoy says people often come into the process with preconceptions about adjusters and about the slowness of the reimbursement process, but asserts that if claimants have emergency needs, checks often can be disbursed quickly. Groom says that over the years people have become more claims conscious, and want to make sure they are getting the full value from their policies.
While claimants often want to talk to adjusters about their claims throughout the process, the insurance companies that hire Able Claims typically dont want to be bothered with such details unless theres a problem, Mountjoy says.
Good insurance adjusters are hard to come by because a certain depth of knowledge and a lot of continuing education is required, Mountjoy says. Much of the continuing education now is accomplished through online courses. He says the expertise in the field is in jeopardy, as fewer people enter the field, which frequently requires putting in evening hours and working on weekends, and because facing disasters and accidents every day creates a lot of inherent job stress.
He says that between wood-burning season, leaking-roof season, and summer boating season, Able Claims Service has no shortage of work, and asserts that most people are satisfied by the time their claim is paid. Mountjoy also notes that in all of his years in the business, hes never been bored.
Every day is different, he says.
Contact Jeanne Gustafson at (509) 344-1264 or via e-mail at email@example.com.
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