Hurricane Sandy will go down in history as one of the most devastating and costly storms in history, resulting in at least 121 deaths and $50 billion in property damage across the East Coast of the United States. Residents of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were hit hardest by Sandy’s path of destruction which caused extensive flooding, extended power outages, and substantial property damage.
Superstorm Sandy pounded the East Coast with strong winds and heavy rain, causing storm surges and flooding in high risk zones near the ocean and other bodies of water. While insurance policies covering hurricane damage typically have specific hurricane deductibles, these deductibles are not applicable in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, since the National Hurricane Center categorized Sandy as a post-tropical storm rather than a hurricane by the time it struck the Northeast. Nevertheless, these types of storm policies are usually intended to cover damage from wind and rain, not from flooding.
While federal flood insurance is available to residential and commercial property owners in high risk areas, the vast majority of property owners in these areas do not purchase it. Without flood insurance, many property owners are left to look for coverage from their homeowners or commercial insurance policies. The number of insurance claims resulting from damage from Sandy is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. Considering the sheer volume of claims, heavy litigation is anticipated.
In the case of property damages from Sandy, disputes over coverage for storm damage will likely turn on facts concerning the cause of the damage and, in particular, whether the damage was caused by wind or flood water. Expert witnesses will be critical to support disputed insurance claims, especially when the claims involve substantial damage, as is often the case in hurricane scenarios. Insurance defense attorneys need to have an arsenal of the best experts on hand to testify on cause of damages.
Hurricane insurance claims in arbitration or litigation require expert meteorologists and structural engineers to perform forensic meteorology and weather reconstruction and offer expert opinion testimony on wind loads and wind damage, storm surges, and other weather conditions at the exact time and location when damage occurred. Insurance defense firms may also benefit from hiring “hurricane experts” or “mass disaster experts” who have experience with storms like Sandy that have caused massive property destruction.
In the aftermath of the flood of insurance claims post Hurricane Sandy, insurance companies and their defense counsel need to keep in mind their legal obligation to policyholders to act in good faith in their investigations and paying of claims. If not, depending on the jurisdiction, any type of “insurance bad faith” may allow a policyholder to sue for the full value of the claim, plus damages.
By: Jacqueline E. Crosby, Esq., Attorney at Law