Wildfire Claims – Vineyards and Wineries: Your Legal Rights

Wildfires are devastating and may wipe out an entire vineyard in a short amount of time. Damages can be extreme and there are usually long-term impacts on the business. It is estimated that the most recent Northern California wildfires destroyed at least a dozen wineries. 30 wineries in the Napa Valley Vintners group reported at least some damage due to the fires with no fewer than 6 reporting significant losses.

After the fire is over you need to assess your damages and file claims with your insurance providers. More than one policy may cover the various types of damages that you sustained as a result of the wildfire.

It is important to review your policies to determine coverage. Every policy is different, so you need to check for details such as when to file a claim. Further, crop policies generally require that you don’t do anything with the crops until after an adjuster has examined them. This is essential because you could destroy evidence of the damage and thereby could be causing a more difficult assessment.

If you must do something, such as harvest the grapes that are salvageable, you need to contact your insurance provider and obtain written permission. The provider will send an adjuster on an urgent basis if necessary.

California Fair Claims Settlement Practices

The California Department of Insurance provides protection for insured citizens and businesses in California. The Commissioner oversees the California Code of Regulations. The regulations are designed to protect people from unfair insurance practices. Insurance providers must follow the regulations in order to comply with the law. Their failure to do so could prompt legal action.

Insurance companies are required by law to provide you with an acceptance or denial of a claim no later than 40 days after receipt of proof. If the provider requires more time they may request an extension. However, extensions are only granted for good reason. The provider must document the amounts accepted or denied so that the insured has a clear understanding of the outcome. A claim denial or partial denial must be made in writing. The reasons for the denial must be clearly stated.

When a claim is rejected the company has to provide a legal basis for which the denial was made. The specific legal reasons must be clearly provided along with reference to the applicable law or statute that governs the situation.

If you feel your claim was unfairly denied you may request a review by the California Department of Insurance. A request must be made in writing. This applies to a claim that was wrongfully denied or rejected in part or in whole.

After the insurance company accepts a claim and approves a settlement they must pay it to the insured within 30 days. The claim amount is the amount that has been accepted by the insured.

California FAIR Plan

The FAIR plan allows property owners the ability to obtain insurance if they are unable to do so through the traditional insurance market. The plan was established in the 1960’s and is designed to provide coverage for those who may be affected by wildfires. While most of these policies are for residential homeowners there is a percentage provided for commercial properties.

If you do not have insurance coverage or your claim was denied you may be able to file for help from FEMA. It is important to note that FEMA provides assistance only after the insurance company provides payout or a letter of denial. In addition to assistance, you may be eligible for a low-interest loan through the Small Business Administration, SBA, which is overseen through FEMA.

Crop policies are generally made through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These policies cover only crops and not buildings or property. These are typically covered through other policies. Therefore, you might need to file claims with more than one insurance provider. These claims can be quite complex and might end up giving you less than what is necessary to cover your expenses.

How to Protect Your Rights

Wildfires can be devastating and may be a severe threat to your business. Insurance providers are required to follow the law. No claims may be settled for unreasonably low offers. The Department of Insurance may review a settlement offer to determine whether it was unreasonably low. Several factors are used in this determination. The Department looks at the claim, the supporting evidence, the adjuster’s recommendations and any other information that was used in making the determination.

If you feel the insurance settlement is unfair, you may file a dispute with the provider. The provider has guidelines in place to handle disagreements. Generally, you need to follow the dispute guidelines in your policy. An insurance policy is a contract. As such, both parties have obligations and responsibilities. If a dispute arises, you need to go through the process agreed to within the contract.

The company has to review the dispute and take steps for resolution. If you still do not agree with the final settlement you may be able to file a legal claim. This might occur if the entire claim was denied or rejected or when the settlement is less than fair. In these instances, you may be able to prove that the insurance company breached the contract or that they acted in bad faith.

These situations can be complicated. It is helpful to seek legal assistance to protect your rights and resolve your case with an insurance company to obtain the settlement you deserve.

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