Cover Story

SANDY: One Year Later

The number of potential triggers and coverages affecting commercial claims is as massive as Sandy was.
By: | October 1, 2013 • 11 min read

A year after a storm bigger than the country of Mongolia hammered the northeastern United States, many commercial clients are still slogging through the claims adjustment and review process.

But for all of the complexities and intricate calculations required, the outlook is mostly sunny. That’s a good thing because Superstorm Sandy “is not a freak event by any means,” said Claire Souch, vice president of Model Solutions, Risk Management Solutions (RMS).

In fact, in the future, she said, “there could be more severe storms than Sandy hitting the northeastern U.S.”

As risk managers continue to crunch numbers, agonize over policy terms and negotiate their way through the claims adjustment process, they should also make sure to acknowledge shortcomings in disaster planning and risk transfer strategies.

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As always, too many organizations did not protect themselves from flooding, thinking their properties were immune. That came back to haunt many of them.

“Business entities should not look at insurance as their only way to plan for what happens if there is a natural disaster,” said Marty Frappolli, senior director of knowledge resources at The Institutes, a nonprofit educational organization that provides professional development and research for the insurance industry. “They should have an enterprise risk management approach, or an agent or broker should serve in the risk management role.”

Superstorm Sandy, which remained at hurricane strength until just before making landfall near Brigantine, N.J., about 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 29, was close to 1,000 miles in diameter, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). While the effects were felt as far west as Wisconsin — and resulted in blizzards in some areas — the states most affected were New York and New Jersey.

Total economic losses have been estimated at up to $70 billion or higher, with insured losses between $25 billion and $35 billion. Souch said about 65 percent of the insured losses were due to surge-related flood damage, with the remainder caused by wind-related damage.

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But nothing is simple when adjusting property, business interruption or contingent business interruption claims, particularly in this situation, when the affected geographic area was so large.

A business could have multiple locations and each location could have been affected in one or different ways — flood, water, power outage, evacuation orders, ingress/egress — and that’s before determining whether coverage was triggered and what sublimits, deductibles and waiting periods applied.

“You have all of these different factors applying on a massive scale, all at the same time,” said John Shugrue, an attorney and partner with Reed Smith. “And the larger the claim, the more likely it is to be resisted by insurers. It’s sort of the law of large numbers.”

For all of the immensity of the damage, it’s important to remember that it was insurance professionals who were the “second responders,” Frappolli said.

“First responders get a lot of praise and attention for putting their lives on the line during a disaster,” he said. “But the very next day, insurance people with water, meals, supplies and checkbooks start to provide the grease to the economic engine.”

Insurers sent in tens of thousands of adjusters and experts to “get a jump start on claims,” he said. Liberty Mutual, alone, assigned 18,000 employees to respond to Sandy.

Claims Surge to 1.52 Million

The catastrophic commercial losses from Sandy were not all that different than the losses sustained in hurricanes Katrina or Ike. What was different was that New Yorkers just don’t expect hurricanes to hit their businesses or homes the way residents in Florida or North Carolina do.

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“The Northeast region is not accustomed to handling property claims [resulting from named windstorms], even though they did get somewhat of a wake-up call with Hurricane Irene,” said Clark Schweers, principal and lead, Insurance Claims Service Practice in the United States for BDO Consulting.

“Sandy was a different scale,” he said. Plus, the Northeast is denser, with both people and buildings, than further south. That ratcheted up the difficulty in preparing for the storm and in responding to it.

More than 1.52 million total claims were filed for losses resulting from Sandy, according to the Insurance Information Institute (III) and Property Claim Services (PCS). About 13 percent were from commercial clients, which accounted for 48 percent of the insured dollar losses.

III reported that 93 percent of all claims had been settled by the six month anniversary of the storm.

“By and large, the vast majority of these claims, they were filed, they were settled and they were closed,” said Robert Hartwig, an economist and president of the III.

In just New York and New Jersey alone, nearly 880,000 insurance claims were filed. About 36 percent of commercial claims filed in New Jersey were closed without payment. New York does not keep separate numbers for business or personal claims. In all, 19 percent of New York’s total claims were closed without payment.

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Bill Krekstein, an attorney and partner at Nelson Levine de Luca & Hamilton, said the interactions between insureds and insurers have been mostly positive.

“It appears most people would tell you the majority of insurance claims are going pretty smoothly,” he said. “I think carriers are stepping up. They are being very proactive in the adjustment process.”

Obviously, the first step was establishing the cause of loss. It may sound simple, but it’s not.

“The term that really bubbled up was ‘storm surge,’ ” said Frappolli. Surge is defined as rising ocean water driven by wind, so is it a flood event or a wind event?

“The insurance carriers,” said Al Tobin, national property practice leader at Aon Risk Solutions, “very much tried to push ‘surge’ into the definition of flood. … They were not as successful as they would have liked to have been, so ‘surge’ still remains in windstorm for key customers.”

Concurrent Damage

Then, there is the question of whether coverage is triggered when damage is caused by a combination of wind and flood. That’s when a policy’s “anti-concurrent causation” (ACC) exclusion plays a big role in determining whether a payout will be forthcoming.

Say an insured has coverage for wind damage but not for flood damage — and it suffered both wind and flood damage. The ACC clause will exclude the loss, in whole or in part, because the act occurred concurrently with the excluded act of flooding.

For example, when New York companies lost power after a lower Manhattan substation of the city’s utility ConEd exploded on Oct. 29, their coverage may have depended on the cause of that explosion, said Reed Smith’s Shugrue.

If the power failure was caused by flooding that resulted in arcing, then a company’s business interruption coverage, as well as the sublimits or deductibles that would apply, may depend on its flood coverage, he said. If it was caused by an explosion or mechanical failure, the coverage situation may be quite different.

The ACC exclusion, said Finley Harckham, an attorney and partner with Anderson Kill, has generally been upheld in New York courts.

“In New Jersey, it’s still an open issue,” he said. “That’s one component issue that will have to be resolved by the New Jersey Supreme Court so people will know if they have coverage when flood may have played a role, but was not the sole cause of their loss.

“We are seeing a lot of disputes, and some litigation, over policies which provide separate coverages, limits and deductibles for named storm and flood.

“The policyholders expect to be entitled to the most coverage available under both of those perils for Sandy losses, while the insurers try to limit coverage to the greatest extent possible under those clauses,” he said.

Harckham said he has seen fewer contested claims resulting from Sandy than from previous catastrophic events such as Katrina, but “I wouldn’t say the process is necessarily going smoothly.”

Many insureds whose claims were denied had electrical systems, HVAC machinery, computer hardware and other critical infrastructure in building basements.

“A lot of buyers who had buildings in flood zones were very upset about that,” said Tobin, noting that many organizations since then have made plans to move their equipment to higher levels. New York building codes may actually make that a requirement in the future.

It wasn’t just mechanical equipment that was damaged in basements. One insurer filed suit on behalf of a client against Christie’s Inc., claiming the well-known auction house left more than $1.5 million in artwork exposed to flooding on the ground floor of a warehouse in Brooklyn.

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Organizations also suffered unrecompensed losses because their employees or customers just couldn’t get to the area because roads or tunnels were closed, access was denied or gasoline was nearly impossible to get.

Physical damage is generally needed to trigger business interruption coverage, said Sheri Wilson, National Property Claim director at Lockton.

“I think there was a lot of exposure to companies that was just not insured,” she said. “It was not insured and it wasn’t insurable.”

One of the peculiarities of the storm hitting the Northeast, said BDO Consulting’s Schweers, is that the commercial organizations affected were predominantly retail or service establishments, which are “not as attuned to having these types of losses,” as manufacturing or tourism operations in the Southeast.

Plus, trying to determine the coverage and losses for as many as several thousand different locations is a huge undertaking. Just some of the questions that need to be answered for each individual location are whether the losses were due to flood, wind, power outages, evacuation orders, or inability to get supplies or even get to the business location, he said.

“To try to tell the story of each individual location, when you have so many properties impacted, can be very, very difficult and it takes time to gather that information,” Schweers said.

Establishing the period of restoration to bring the property to its pre-loss condition is also a potential dispute between insureds and carriers, Krekstein said.

“In a lot of these cases, you need a forensic accountant [to determine the loss],” he said. “Generally, only a small percentage of cases ever go to trial.”

In some states hit by Sandy, policyholders are usually required to institute legal proceedings within 12 to 24 months, so it’s not unusual that the courts have not seen a surge of lawsuits thus far. That’s not to say litigation is nonexistent, however.

In the Courts

As always, when insurance disputes hit the courts, decisions often turn on the choice of words used in policies, the definitions of those words and the relationship of various concepts found throughout the policy forms.

In one case, Fisker Automotive Inc. settled its $32 million lawsuit with XL Insurance America over the loss of 338 hybrid electric vehicles that were damaged at a Port Newark, N.J., facility. Before the settlement, Fisker argued the claim involved a loss in transit, as many of the cars were to be delivered to dealerships.

The insurer argued Fisker had no transit coverage, and the claim was limited to $5 million, at most, because Fisker’s commercial property policy had a transit sublimit. Fisker argued that a $100 million named storm sublimit applied. The amount of the settlement was not disclosed.

In another case, New Jersey’s utility, PSEG, filed suit against 11 insurers, claiming the carriers capped coverage at $50 million because of flood sublimits, instead of the $426 million in damage that it suffered from Sandy.

Some brokers, also, are finding their professional services questioned in legal complaints because of the wide-ranging impact of the storm. Companies, whose claims were denied, have filed suit against their brokers, claiming inadequate advice or a failure to purchase requested insurance.

“A lot of those claims,” Krekstein said, “fall back on ‘he said, she said’ types of situations, so it’s a little more fact-intensive” instead of interpreting policy language, as is common with many insurance disputes.
When it comes to contingent business interruption issues, it’s even more complex because that is a “relatively new type of coverage,” he said, that is triggered when a supplier has a loss that directly impacts the insured.

“The issue with that coverage is that there is not a lot of law on it,” Krekstein said.

Aon’s Tobin said the storm should bring “a greater awareness and greater attention to how clients buy insurance and it’s also driving significant attention for insurers on how to price the product and how much capacity they will offer, specifically for wind.”

The event has resulted in an “explosion of Cat bonds,” he said, since that’s a solution for some clients that have significant wind and earthquake limits. RMS has also been involved in a Cat bond deal for the MTA, New York’s transportation authority, which saw eight tunnels flooded and suffered about $5 billion in damage.

“It is important to remember,” Tobin said, “these Cat bond deals only work for modeled perils.”

III’s Hartwig said he believes “more businesses will start to get the message that they need to have complete and full protection against these types of events,” he said, “including flood, business interruption and, possibly, contingent business interruption coverage.”

“These are lessons very, very hard learned,” Hartwig said. “When you look at the experience of the past decade now, it’s very difficult to understand how businesses would not fully and completely insure themselves. Is coverage expensive in some areas? Yes, it is, but it is available.”

“It’s just the same lesson,” Frappolli said, “we keep learning over and over again.”

Anne Freedman is managing editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Reputational Risk

Under Siege

Driven by social media, political wars spill over into the corporate arena, threatening reputations.
By: | May 2, 2017 • 12 min read

On Jan. 28, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance called a strike at John F. Kennedy International Airport, one day after President Trump signed an executive order banning entry of foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations, including a blanket ban on refugees. The strike was an act of solidarity with immigrants, and a public display of the Alliance’s opposition to the executive order.

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Uber, however, continued to service the airport, tweeting that it would halt surge pricing during the protests. Some saw it as an opportunistic ploy to get more riders to use Uber. A #deleteUber Twitter campaign was quickly born, with users tweeting screen shots of themselves removing the app from their smartphones.

More than 200,000 were estimated to have uninstalled the ride-sharing service over the course of the weekend.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick reacted, creating a $3 million legal defense fund to provide lawyers and immigration experts for any of its drivers that were barred from the U.S., and promising that drivers would be compensated for lost wages.

Over the same weekend, in response to the travel ban, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced that the company would hire 10,000 refugees worldwide over the next five years. Then it was Starbucks turn to get punished in the public arena. A #boycottStarbucks campaign was launched by people who felt the company should focus more on hiring American veterans.

Athletic shoemaker New Balance suffered blowback in November of 2016 when its vice president of communications, Matt LeBretton, told the “Wall Street Journal” in an interview that he believed “things are going to move in the right direction” under the new administration. Angry customers began posting pictures of themselves trashing or even burning their New Balance sneakers.

These social media-fueled public relations crises demonstrate how fickle public opinion can be. They also serve as warning signs of growing reputational risk for corporations.

Uber, for example, typically stops its surge pricing in the event of emergency so as not to exploit a crisis for its own benefit. To do so during the protests and taxi strike at JFK was perhaps meant to show its respect for the event.

Helen Chue, global risk manager, Facebook

Starbucks’ 10,000 refugee hires would be spread out across its locations around the globe, not just in the U.S., where the coffee conglomerate already promised to hire 25,000 veterans and military spouses by 2025.

New Balance’s LeBretton was speaking specifically about the Trans-Pacific Partnership during his interview, and how the deal could hurt sneaker production in the U.S. while favoring foreign producers — he wasn’t talking about Trump’s other proposed plans.

These companies, in reality, did nothing as abhorrent and scandalous as the Twitterverse may have led some to believe, but context isn’t always provided in 140 characters.

Public Pressure

Complaints and boycotts have been launched at companies via social media for perhaps as long as social media has existed. But the current contentious environment created by one of the most divisive leaders in American history now colors every public statement made by prominent business leaders with a political tint. Executives are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They’re exposed to reputational damage whether they oppose or endorse a Trump action, or even if they do nothing at all.

Take Elon Musk, for example, founder of Tesla and SpaceX and a well-known advocate for climate research and environmental protection. He came under fire for not publicly denouncing the travel ban and for keeping his seat on Trump’s business advisory council.

Musk has largely avoided the limelight on political issues, couching statements when he makes them at all — as most executives are wont to do. But he was prodded to defend himself on Twitter after some users suggested he was a hypocrite.

“Be proactive in your plans to mitigate the aftermath and how to communicate. Own up to error. Be transparent. Salvage your crown jewel.” —Helen Chue, global risk manager, Facebook

A strategy of avoidance may no longer work as consumers, employees and the public at large pressure companies to make a statement or take action in response to political events.

“A large segment of the population expects the people they do business with and the companies they buy from to support their point of view or respond to political or social issues in a certain way,” said Chrystina M. Howard, senior vice president, strategic risk consulting, Willis Towers Watson.

In a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t environment, reputation risk is expanding, and risk managers need to re-evaluate how they assess their exposure and build mitigation strategies.

A True Crisis?

The challenge begins with determining whether a negative public relations event is really a crisis. Is it a temporary blow to a brand, or does it have the potential to do long-term reputation damage? Misreading the signs could lead companies to overreact and further tarnish their image.

“These sudden public relations crises are a source of panic for companies, but sometimes it sounds much worse than it actually is. The financial ramifications may not be anywhere near what was feared,” Howard said.

“Uber is probably a good example of what not to do,” said Jeff Cartwright, director of communications at Morning Consult, a brand and political intelligence firm.

“They maybe went over the top in trying to reverse the way they handled the protests at JFK.”

Tracking brand value in real time can give risk managers insight into the true impact of a negative social media campaign or bad press.  Michael Ramlet, CEO and co-founder of Morning Consult, said most events don’t damage brands as much as trending hashtags make it appear.

Morning Consult’s proprietary brand tracking tool allows companies to measure their brand perception against influencing events like a spike of Twitter mentions and news stories. More often than not, overall brand loyalty remains on par with industry averages.

In Uber’s case, Twitter mentions spiked to roughly 8,800 on Jan. 29, up from about 1,000 the day before. By Jan. 31, though, the number was back down to around 1,250 and quickly settled back down to its average numbers. From the beginning of the #deleteUber campaign through the end of February, Uber’s favorability shrunk from 50 percent to roughly 40 percent, based on a series of polls taken by 18,908 respondents.

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It’s a significant dip, but likely not a permanent stain on the company’s reputation, especially after Kalanick’s public show of support for immigrants and rejection of the travel ban. Uber’s favorability rating remained higher than competitor Lyft’s throughout the ordeal.

“The #deleteUber campaign turned out to be a very local thing that didn’t have a widespread impact,” Ramlet said.

“Twitter at best is an imputed analysis of what people are saying. The vocal minority might be very active, but there might be a silent majority who still think fondly of a brand, or at least have no negative opinions of it.”

He said risk managers can also benefit by breaking down their brand perception into geographic and demographic subsets. It can, for example, show whether a brand is favored more heavily by Democrats or Republicans.

“If you have that data on day one, it can help you determine how to respond if, say, Trump tweets at you,” Ramlet said.

Of course, some spikes in news media and social media attention are indicative of much deeper problems and true reputational risk.

After the Wells Fargo dummy-account scandal broke, for example, unfavorability ratings as measured by Morning Consult jumped from roughly 20 percent to nearly 55 percent, while favorability dropped from 50 percent to 30 percent. Net favorability, which stood at 33 percent pre-scandal, fell to -4 percent post-scandal.

“They went from being the most popular bank to the least popular in less than four months, according to our data,” Ramlet said.

The contrast between Uber’s and Wells Fargo’s stories demonstrates the difference between a more surface-level public-relations event that temporarily hurts brand image, and a true reputation event.

“Failures that produce real and lasting damage to reputation include failures of ethics, innovation, safety, security, quality and sustainability,” said Nir Kossovksy, CEO of Steel City Re.

“Activists make a lot of noise that can be channeled through various media, but for the most part in the business world, stakeholders are interested in the goods and services a company offers, not in their political or social views. As long as you can meet stakeholder expectations, you avoid long-term reputational damage.”

Wells Fargo’s scandal involved a violation of ethics, sparked an SEC investigation and forced the resignation of its CEO, John Stumpf. It’s safe to say stakeholders were severely disappointed.

That’s not to say, however, that a tarnished brand name doesn’t also impact the bottom line.

“Even if a bad event is short-lived, the equity markets react quickly, so there may be sharp equity dips. There may be some economic impact even over the short term,” Kossovsky said, “because sharp dips are dog whistles for activists, litigators and corporate raiders.”

Social Media Machine

The root of reputation risk’s tightening grip lies in the politicizing of business, and consumers’ increased desire to buy from companies that share their values. Social media may not be driving that trend, but it acts as a vehicle for it.

“Social media has really changed the game in terms of brand equity, and has given people another way to choose who they give their money to,” Howard of Willis Towers Watson said.

Platforms like Twitter make it easier for consumers to directly reach out to big companies and allow news to travel at warp speed.

“Social media are communication channels that can take a story and make it widely available. In that regard, the media risk is no different than that posed by a newspaper or radio channel,” Kossovsky said.

“The difference today that changes the strategy for risk managers and boards is that social media has been weaponized: Stories shared on social media don’t necessarily have to contain truthful content, and there’s not always an obvious difference between what’s true and what’s not.”

Helen Chue, Facebook’s global risk manager, agreed.

“More influential than social media platforms is today’s culture of immediacy and headlines. Because we are inundated with information from so many sources, we scan the headlines, form our opinions and go from there,” she said.

“It’s dangerous to draw conclusions without taking a balanced approach, but who has the time and patience to sift through all the different viewpoints?”

An environment of political divisiveness, driven by speed and immediacy of social media, creates the risk that false or half-true stories are disseminated before companies have a chance to clarify. This is what happened to Uber and New Balance.

“It creates the opportunity to turn a non-problem into a problem,” Kossovksy said.

“That’s how social media changes the calculus of risk management.”

Risk Mitigation

The best way to battle both political pressure and social media’s speed is through an ironclad communication strategy; a process that risk managers can lead.

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“Risk managers play a crucial role in mitigating reputation risk,” Howard said.

“They bring with them the discipline of managing and monitoring a risk, having a plan and responding to crisis. Now they really have to partner with communications, marketing and PR.”

They also have to get the attention of their board of directors.

“If you let a gap form between what you say and what you do, that gap is the definition of reputation risk.” — Nir Kossovksy, CEO of Steel City Re

“This is both a company-wide risk and personal leadership risk, so the board needs to drive a company-wide policy that protects the board as well,” Kossovsky said.

The art of mitigating reputation risk, he said, comes down to managing expectations. Corporate communications should clearly convey what a company believes and what it does not believe; what it can do and what it can’t do. And those stated values need to align with the operational reality. It comes down to creating credibility and legitimacy.

“If you let a gap form between what you say and what you do, that gap is the definition of reputation risk,” he said. A strong communication strategy can prevent adverse events from turning into reputational threats.

Willis Towers Watson helps clients test their strategies through a table-top exercise in which they have to respond to a social media-driven reputation event.

“We’ll say, ‘Something happened with X product, and now everyone’s on Twitter lambasting you and calling for resignations, etc.’ What do you do on day one? What do you do a week out? How long do you continue to monitor it and keep it on your radar?” Howard said.

“If you have that plan in place, you can fine-tune it going forward as circumstances change.”

Sometimes, though, the communication strategy fails, and a company falls short of meeting stakeholders’ expectations. Now it’s time for crisis management.

“Volatility creates vulnerability. If you stumble on your corporate message, it creates an opportunity for activists, litigators and corporate raiders to exploit. So you need to have authoritative third parties who can attest to your credibility and affirm the truth of the situation to open-minded stakeholders,” Kossovsky said.

Owning up to any mistakes, reaffirming the truth and being as transparent as possible will be key in any response plan.

Insuring the Risk

Recouping dollars lost from reputation damage requires a blend of mathematics with a little magic. While some traditional products are available, reputation risk is, for the most part, an intangible and uninsurable risk.

“Many companies have leveraged their captive insurance companies in the absence of traditional reputation products in the marketplace,” said Derrick Easton, managing director, alternative risk transfer solutions practice, Willis Towers Watson.

“It goes back to measuring a loss that can include lost revenue, or increased costs. Some companies build indexes in the same way we might create an index for a weather product, using rainfall or wind speed. For reputation, we might use stock price or a more refined index,” he said.

“If we can measure a potential loss, we can build a financing structure.”

While there’s no clear-cut way to measure losses from reputation damage, “stock performance and reported sales changes are some of the best tools we have,” Howard said.

Some insurers, including Allianz and Tokiomarine Kiln, and Steel City Re, an MGA, do offer reputation policies. When these fit a company’s needs, they have the ancillary benefit of affirming quality of governance and sending a signal that the insured is prepared to defend itself.

“Because reputation assurance is only available to companies that have demonstrated sound governance processes, it helps to convince people that if a bad piece of news happens, it’s idiosyncratic; it doesn’t reflect what the company really stands for,” Kossovsky of Steel City Re said.

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“And it tells activists, broadly defined, not to look for low-hanging fruit here.”

In a volatile political environment, companies fare best when they simply tell the truth.

“The American public will accept an apology if delivered quickly and if it’s sincere,” said Stephen Greyser, Richard P. Chapman professor (marketing/communications) emeritus, of the Harvard Business School.

“Tell the truth. Don’t stonewall. A bad social media campaign can be an embarrassment, but if you stick to the facts and apologize when you need to, people forget about the bad quickly.”

“Reputation is the crown jewel,” Chue said. “Given the power of social media’s reach, one individual can have a tsunami-like influence. And it can happen when you least expect it, and it will probably be something you thought was innocuous or even positive that sets off a maelstrom.

“Plan for the worst-case scenario. Be proactive in your plans to mitigate the aftermath and how to communicate. Own up to error. Be transparent. Salvage your crown jewel.” &

Katie Siegel is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]