Draining your rights? KSL Investigates insurance settlement agreements

Matt Gephardt and Bonnie and Tiffany Young examine damage left behind in Bonnie’s home after a plumber’s mistake. (Josh Szymanik, KSL-TV)


3 photos

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

MILLCREEK – Bonnie Young's 79th birthday brought a very messy surprise.

While updating a sewer line underneath the condo complex where she lives, a plumber mistakenly blocked off a line, preventing the four condos above Young's from properly draining. That mistake flooded her home.

"The dining room was full of water," she said.

No, not water. Her dining room was full of raw sewage.

"That happened way back on July 10," Tiffany Young, Bonnie's daughter, told us. "And we're still waiting for repairs to begin."

Tired of waiting, the Youngs contacted the KSL Investigators.

Demanding a settlement agreement

It wasn't the mess nor the mistake that had Young and her daughter all fired up. It is the response they got from the plumber's insurance company.

"They won't release any funds to even begin repairs until my mother signs away all of her rights," said Tiffany Young.

She said the insurance company got an estimate which is several thousand dollars lower than the bid she got. And before paying a dime, the insurance company demanded Bonnie sign an agreement that she won't be allowed to ask for any more money, no matter what the final bill may be.

"Even if the price of the flooring goes up between the time it was estimated a month ago and the time they finally get to repairs, (or) the number of hours of labor, there's no allowance for any change orders or supplements to their claim they don't want to do," said Tiffany Young.

The women said they had tried to negotiate with the insurance company — asking them to at least pay the money they were willing to pay so work could start, before settling the final bill later.

But the insurance company refused and because they have all the money, they seem to have all the leverage.

"The alternative we had was to come to you," Tiffany Young told the KSL Investigators.

Before you sign

We took their situation to Jonathan Pike, commissioner of the Utah Insurance Department.

"Release forms such as these are kind of an industry standard," he said.

Pike said not only are settlement agreements common, but his department does not have the authority to step in and force an insurance company to pay if a homeowner refuses to sign an agreement. With homeowners desperate to get their homes or cars repaired as quickly as possible, an insurance company has the upper hand.

"A consumer can be strong-armed into signing if they want to get anything repaired, couldn't they?" we asked Commissioner Pike.

"They could if they just signed and that's where I think it's important to not make these decisions in a vacuum," Pike responded.

Insurance companies are generally bound by their contracts. The trouble is those contracts usually use phrases like, "reasonable" costs, and what may be reasonable to the insurance company may not be reasonable to you.

He explained it is a negotiation and when there is a stalemate, Utah law leaves it up to homeowners and the insurance company to straighten it out.

"They can either try to continue the negotiations on their own or if they feel like they need representation, they may want to go to someone like an attorney," said Pike.

A lawyer the KSL Investigators spoke to says that when an insurance company refuses to budge, it is great to have multiple bids to show them, so they can better judge what repair costs are likely to be.

A change of heart

Next, we reached out to the insurance company, EMC, on the Youngs' behalf.

We asked, "Why is EMC requiring Bonnie Young sign a 'Release and Settlement Agreement' before money will be paid toward repairs?"

And just like that, it seems they had a change of heart.

In an email to KSL, the company's executive director wrote, "A payment for the undisputed damage amount has been issued to Ms. Young and should be received in the coming days. The parties continue to work toward full resolution of the entire claim. Beyond that, we do not go into specifics of individual claims situations."

When asked if she would speak generally about why the company asks disaster victims to sign away their rights, she responded, "No, thank you, but we will pass."

Sure enough, a few days later, the repairs that were three months in the making finally began, without Bonnie Young having to sign an agreement that what EMC paid will be its final offer.

"We're just really thankful to KSL Investigates for helping us out. It made all the difference," said Tiffany Young.

Have you experienced something you think just isn't right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

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Utah
Matt Gephardt
Sloan Schrage

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