Residents: Insurance policies canceled

Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- Pat and Jim Parks stand in the backyard of their Bayou Corne mobile home Tuesday. The former Baton Rouge residents retired to Assumption Parish several years ago but have been evacuated since the formation of a sinkhole Aug. 3. Pat Parks said her homeowner's insurance company threatened not to renew her policy because she and her husband had left the home vacant, only to learn Monday that they would be able to renew.
Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- Pat and Jim Parks stand in the backyard of their Bayou Corne mobile home Tuesday. The former Baton Rouge residents retired to Assumption Parish several years ago but have been evacuated since the formation of a sinkhole Aug. 3. Pat Parks said her homeowner's insurance company threatened not to renew her policy because she and her husband had left the home vacant, only to learn Monday that they would be able to renew.

Louisiana Commissioner of Insurance Jim Donelon said Tuesday his office is making a general inquiry into allegations that insurers are not renewing homeowner’s policies of residents evacuated due to the large sinkhole in Assumption Parish.

Donelon cautioned that his office has not received a formal complaint but has been asked by the parish Police Jury to look into the matter and more recently was informed by the Independent Insurance Agents of Louisiana about alleged non-renewal of policies.

“We are looking into the subject generally because we’re getting reports of non-renewal here and there,” he said.

He said his office would look at the “totality of the situation,” including the rights of residents to be covered by Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state’s insurer of last resort.

In interviews with two evacuated residents and parish officials in the past two weeks, some said insurers were not renewing or had threatened not to renew their policies because their homes had been left vacant for more than 30 days.

In another case, a non-renewal letter cited “increased hazard” and a “substantial change in risk” after a resident filed a claim due to tremor-induced damage. The claim was also denied. The resident and company agreed to part ways.

Residents also reported agents asked them to consider policies designed to cover vacant dwellings.

Parish President Martin “Marty” Triche, who has spoken with a few of the same affected residents, said the non-renewals on the basis of vacancy are “totally inappropriate because there is a mandatory evacuation.”

Neither Donelon nor Triche had a firm fix on how many people have been affected.

“It sounds like now it’s more than one and two,” Triche said. “It sounds like there’s several running into the same” situation, he said.

Sonny Cranch, a spokesman for Texas Brine Co. LLC, said the company asked residents about insurance concerns during the company’s weekly assistance check distribution on Thursday.

He said the company found two instances where policies were not renewed and two more where residents had questions.

“It’s not widespread as far as we can see,” Cranch said.

Triche ordered the evacuation Aug. 3, the same day the sinkhole was found on property leased and managed by Texas Brine. Scientists think a Texas Brine salt cavern in the Napoleonville Dome failed deep underground, setting loose crude oil and gas from natural formations and causing the sinkhole.

Both issues — uncertainty about underground instability that spawned the sinkhole and freed the trapped oil and gas — factor into the evacuation sustained for more than six months.

Under a 1992 state law, insurers cannot “non-renew” homeowner’s polices or change coverage or deductibles if the insurer and consumer have been together for three years or more, Donelon said.

The law, which is unique in the United States, allows insurers to make such changes only if they do it to their entire statewide book of business, he said.

“That statute protected hundreds of thousands of consumers after (hurricanes) Katrina and Rita in 2005,” Donelon said.

But he also cautioned that state law does not prevent insurers from non-renewing or otherwise changing policies within the three-year period.

He said companies have different vacancy provisions in their policies.

Bayou Corne residents Dollie and Haywood Cavalier received notification last month from their insurance agent that their homeowner’s policy would not be renewed because their home was vacant.

The Cavaliers have been living in a camper in a trailer park in Pierre Part since the sinkhole formed, but Dollie Cavalier said she and her husband continue to pay the bills at their house.

She said her husband had just filed a claim with their insurer, Occidental Fire and Casualty Co. of North Carolina, which is based in Bradenton, Fla.

The non-renewal took effect Feb. 1, according to a Jan. 14 letter from the Cavalier’s agent, Arthur J. Gallagher Risk Management Services Inc.

The letter notes the insurer had requested an inspection and found the home vacant.

“Homeowner’s policies are intended to cover owner-occupied dwellings. Insurance is available for vacant dwellings,” wrote Julie Boudreaux, account manager with Arthur Gallagher. “Please call for a quote.”

An underwriter for Occidental did not return a message asking for comment Tuesday. An official with the Arthur Gallagher office in Plattenville did not return messages for comment Monday and Tuesday.

Dollie said she and her husband have had their policy since 2009 but she was uncertain of the month. She said she does not know what she is going to do.

“I have no idea,” she said.

Pat Parks, 68, a Baton Rouge resident who retired to a mobile home in Bayou Corne with her husband, Jim, said she was informed Friday by an agent for her insurer, Foremost Insurance Group, that she would not be renewed for not occupying her residence.

In a follow-up call with the company Monday, she said a different agent told her that she would have to have a policy for a vacant dwelling.

But during that lengthy call, she was sent to another agent who eventually told Parks she would be able to renew her same homeowners’ policy.

“They said they were sympathetic to my needs, (that) it was an evacuation, and I could continue on my same policy,” Parks said.

“Go figure. They just put me through the mill, it seems like for nothing. I went ahead, and I paid my premium for three months. I hope they don’t ring me back and cancel .”

Mark Toohey, spokesman for Farmers Insurance Group, parent of Foremost, said that he could not speak in regard to the communications among the Foremost agents and Parks.

But he said the company did not “non-renew” Parks’ policy, adding she paid her premium and will be given the same opportunity to renew when the current policy comes up. When asked, Toohey said other non-renewals are not occurring in the Bayou Corne area.

“There are not any non-renewals going on anywhere in the state, let alone where the sinkhole problem is,” he said.

Foremost insures 28,000 mobile homes in Louisiana, Toohey said.