Monument Fire victims say insurance companies fighting claims

SIERRA VISTA, AZ (KOLD) - If you haven't checked your insurance policy lately, you might want to take a look at it.

It's been more than three months since the Monument Fire tore through the Huachuca Mountains south of Sierra Vista, destroying 70 homes and businesses.

Now, residents are dealing with another problem: getting paid for what they lost.

One man, who didn't want to be identified because he said he was afraid of what his insurance company might do if they found out, said that at first he was confident he would be compensated for his losses.

"He (an insurance agent) was cutting us a check for this and cutting a check for that, and we're thinking 'OK, we're going to be good, we'll be fine,' and come to find out we weren't."

He said that despite paying extra to be fully covered, his policy wasn't enough to cover everything.

"We lived in that home since 1998, and everything we owned in that home is gone."

'It's a game'

Peter Romero, a licensed insurance adjuster who helps victims get the claims they're entitled to, said it's up to the homeowner to make sure they're completely covered.

"It isn't the insurance company's job or obligation to teach you how to recover the maximum from them," he said. "I've worked 22 disasters and I have not found one where the majority of the property owners were properly insured."

Romero said all 30 homeowners he spoke with in the burned-out area were under-insured.

"It is a game, and as a regular, everyday person you don't know all the rules to their games."

Jessie Nuding, owner of the historic Nick's Place, said she never thought getting the money she was due would be such a hassle. But it's been more than three months, and she's received nothing.

"I never thought that the insurance company was going to give me such a hard time."

Nuding said she was offered her two settlements, both lower than her limits.

"I've paid every month for this insurance and they don't come through, it's incredibly maddening," she said. "You feel like you don't know what you're doing against them."

Romero says insurance companies intentionally low-ball their customers when selling policies and when paying them out.

"So I'm left with two different mortgages that I can't pay, and the insurance company hasn't sent any money at all, and so I have both companies coming after me for the money," Nuding said.

Looking for answers

KOLD News 13's Mark Stine talked to Wendell Gilbert, Nuding's insurance agent in Sierra Vista.

"I'm just curious to why the money hasn't come through?" Stine said.

"It's not for me to discuss with you. It's for me to discuss with the policy holder," Gilbert answered.

"She says you're not talking to her about that."

"Yeah, I'm not going to discuss it with you."

"I'm just basically looking for simple answers."

"I'm going to call the police if you don't leave my building right now."

Gilbert later released this statement:

"The insurance company advised that the policyholder has secured a public adjuster who acts as their representative. As a result, the insurance company is directed to deal with the public adjuster only and we are removed from the claim process."

Ron Williams represents a dozen of the largest insurance companies in Arizona. He said that under state law and regulations, it is the responsibility of the homeowner to make sure their home is properly protected.

"It is the benefit of both the consumer and the insurance company to make sure your property is valued at the right level," he said. "It's a problem of education, and we still need to do that."

Some people who lost everything in the Monument Fire are getting that lesson, apparently a little too late.

"It's just tough, every time I drive by and see it, it doesn't get any easier," Nuding said.

While it's not always easy to purchase the proper insurance policy, there's at least one thing you can do to ensure you're better protected.

Call your home builder, or a home builder in your area, and find out how much it would cost today to rebuild your home. Then, add 15 percent for removal of your damaged home, Romero said.

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