Tornado Week: How to avoid insurance battle after tornado

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May 24, 2011, a dozen violent twisters cut several paths through central Oklahoma.

Ron and Lil Mercer didn't even have time to run to their storm shelter.

They hunkered down in an interior closet.

"It vibrated just for a couple seconds and it exploded. It sounded like an explosion," Ron said.

Buried under the weight of their home, it took rescuers almost an hour to pull them out.

Down the road in Chickasha, Whitney Bunnell had just endured the same thing.

"Just a bunch of metal twisting and banging. Very scary," Bunnell said.

The tornado literally picked up her mobile home and slammed it back down.

Having just survived the storm of their lives, neither the Mercers nor Bunnell were prepared for the fight that came after.

"Everything I've had to fight for and I didn't think I should have to fight for it," Ron Mercer said.

Both families are now suing their insurance companies for not settling fairly.

They turned to Oklahoma City attorney Jeff Marr. Marr says he believes most claims are settled fairly. But he says some are not.

"My job shouldn't exist. You shouldn't need a lawyer to sue somebody for bad faith. They should pay you. You paid them in good faith. It's not like you created the storm to profit," Marr said.

Marr is the same attorney who won a class action lawsuit against State Farm back in 2006 over claims from the May 3, 1999 tornado.

"It was a six-week long trial but the jury was mad," Marr said.

The jury found State Farm acted "recklessly" and "with malice" in handling insurance claims from dozens of families strung from Chickasha to Midwest City.

Marr said structural engineers hired by State Farm not once agreed with the homeowner as to the extent of the damage.

"Every one of the reports pretty much read the same thing. They were all cut-and-paste. Sometimes they didn't even bother to get the addresses changed. They didn't even change the address. But the conclusions always were, there's no structural damage to your house," Marr said.

Donna Cosper was part of that class action lawsuit.

"You just trust the insurance company and in fact they were our worst enemy," said Cosper. "We hired a structural engineer and he said the house had to come down because the torque that was in it, it would never be right and they sent in a person that said, 'Oh, there's just, you know, minor damage.'"

Cosper now has advice for other Oklahoma homeowners, like keep a copy of your insurance policy in a safe place.

They couldn't find theirs after the storm and said State Farm gave them an altered one.

"They said we weren't covered by wind, water, we didn't have full replacement value. All these things they came up with in this policy they gave us," Cosper said.

Also, inventory your home.

Cosper said because they didn't have that, the insurance company made them get three different repair estimates on every item in their home, even down to their alarm clock.

"I mean they just made it hell on earth trying to deal with them," Cosper said.

The Mercers are dealing with a similar situation.

"You don't know how many jackets and how many suits you had. You don't know the dishes and things like that," Ron said.

The Mercers said that full inventory will be the first thing they do after moving into their new home still under construction.

They hope their example keeps other homeowners from ever having to battle their insurance company after surviving a tornado.

The Mercers' lawsuit is against Oklahoma Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company.

"We do not comment on on-going litigation," John Wiscaver said, Vice President of Public Affairs for Oklahoma Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company. "We handle each claim on its own merits pursuant to our policy language ."

The Bunnells' lawsuit is against American Bankers Insurance of Florida.

Robert Byrd is the Senior Communications Director for the American Bankers Insurance of Florida.

He said, "The Bunnells’ damage claim from the tornado outbreak of May 2011 was assessed promptly and professionally, and paid within 30 days. A later claim for personal items also was handled in a similar manner. We are committed to customer service, and we feel we handled the claims not only in accordance with Oklahoma law, but also the terms of the policy."

Oklahoma State Insurance Commissioner, John Doak, offered this in response to our story.

“I would strongly urge adjusters to prevail on the side of common sense in dealing with Oklahomans after tornado losses when it is difficult to obtain any paperwork or serial numbers. I would like to hear from consumers quickly if this is not the case after such a loss.

“Protecting Oklahomans is my top priority. My Consumer Assistance Team at the Oklahoma Insurance Department is always available to help people maneuver their way through the claims process. That toll-free number is (800) 522-0071.

“I would encourage all Oklahomans to complete the Home Inventory Checklist available on our website, , and keep it in a safe deposit box or another safe place outside your home. In addition, insurance agents should be encouraging Oklahomans to take digital pictures of all household contents.”

Get more information on the State Insurance Commissioner's website here.

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