Structural damage to a property is frequently hidden or not discernable, and often does not manifest for years after the damage has occurred. Structural damage comes in many forms, including poor engineering, damage to framing or structural members, slab or foundation damage, and soil problems. Often the only thing an insured sees is cracks in his home or building, doors and windows out of plumb, or out of level floors, but the cause is unknown.
Because structural damage is often not readily apparent, it is frequently not discovered until the damage is advanced or serious. Moreover, when insureds become aware of damages that are manifesting themselves, they frequently do not understand that the cause is a structural issue. Insurance companies often attempt to handle damages resulting from structural issues by paying for cosmetic repairs, like patching cracks in the wall, without addressing the underlying problem. Indeed, structural problems often result in repeat claims, which can also complicates matters, precisely because the structural cause is not initially addressed.
In order to adequately investigate whether there is structural damage to a building, experts must be consulted, and destructive testing may be required. The experts that may need to be retained include structural and geotechnical engineers, who may want to open walls, access portions of the foundation, or test the soil, all of which requires damaging then repairing the property. This kind of investigation is costly and complicated, and often is not undertaken by insurance companies unless an insured presses the claim.
Once the structural damage is identified, there are frequently coverage issues, and the potential application of policy exclusions, which must be addressed. One issue that arises is when the structural damage occurred, and whether the policy at issue was on the risk at that time. Common policy exclusions that are asserted to deny structural damage claims include damages caused by design defects, wear and tear, water leakage or seepage, and earth movement. When such exclusions are asserted, insureds often need to retain experts to establish a covered event, or disprove the applicability of the exclusion.
Structural damage to a building can also raise safety concerns for inhabitants. In such circumstances, the stakes are raised and an insurance company's denial needs to be well-grounded to avoid allegations that they were unreasonably and in bad faith exposing its insured to danger.
Even where a structural cause of property damage is recognized by an insurance company as covered under the policy, there is still often wide disagreement about the appropriate scope, method and cost to repair it. Insurance company experts often propose minimal or inadequate repairs, and experts must be consulted by the insured to establish the appropriate scope and repair methodology.
Structural damages are notoriously difficult to discover, and it is a complicated and expert driven task to adequately investigate them. Insureds who suffer property damage resulting from suspected structural problems, and are having difficulty obtaining insurance coverage or a satisfactory investigation, may want consider consulting their own experts or seeking legal advice.