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ombudsman news

issue 59

January/February 2007

insurance disputes involving subsidence

Disputes involving subsidence - and the damage it can cause - are among the most technically challenging of all the insurance cases we deal with. Here, we outline the main reasons for this. We also provide a selection of case studies illustrating our approach to some of the main types of subsidence disputes we see.

Typically, insurers take longer to settle subsidence claims than they do to settle any other type of claim made under buildings policies. A significant reason for this is that, with subsidence claims, identifying the nature of the damage and its cause is far from the end of the investigation. In many ways, it is only the beginning.

Even once the insurer is satisfied that subsidence caused the damage in question, it must then look carefully into how best to resolve the situation. Determining this can, in itself, be a lengthy process and will depend on a number of variables. These include:

  • the make-up of the soil underlying the foundations
  • the consistency of that make-up
  • the nature of the foundations
  • the trigger(s) for the movement and
  • (once the situation is clear) the options for repair.

Part of the process may involve a period of "waiting time" while the pattern and rate of movement is monitored. Unless this has been explained, policyholders may become impatient with what appears - to them - to be unwarranted delay on the insurers' part.

In quite a large proportion of the subsidence disputes referred to us, the policyholder complains of delay by the insurer in dealing with a claim. Our approach involves investigating whether the insurer took a reasonable and proportionate time to investigate and monitor the situation. If we consider there was an excessive delay before carrying out the necessary repairs, we look at whether the insurer was responsible for that delay.

Despite all the technical know-how that insurers, loss adjusters and other professionals devote to resolving the underlying situation, the need to maintain good communication with the policyholders can sometimes be overlooked. Communication has definitely improved over the years, but it's still not unknown for policyholders to be left very much "in the dark" about what is (or isn't) happening with their claim - and why.

Almost invariably, insurers will need to obtain reports from specialist loss adjusters and building surveyors/engineers. And it is not unusual for policyholders to commission their own reports. Progress can stall if differences of opinion then arise between the specialists reporting to the policyholders and those commissioned by the insurers. For policyholders, understandably anxious to halt the damage to their homes - and possibly already putting up with a considerable degree of inconvenience - the prospect of apparently-unending debate among the experts can often be the final straw.

Dealing with subsidence disputes can be a necessarily complex and lengthy business - for us as well as for insurers. We find that, on average, these cases take us longer to resolve than any other type of insurance complaint. The challenges often involve parties with exceptionally entrenched positions, a variety of technical (and often discordant) opinions, and voluminous correspondence, sometimes stretching back years.

Our rate of progress will inevitably be affected by the timeliness of others, especially if there is a need for further expert evidence. And with some complaints we may need to await the outcome of ongoing monitoring programmes before we can proceed very far.

Settling subsidence disputes sometimes involves applying basic principles that have been overlooked along the way. The most basic, of course, is "what is subsidence-" To insiders, the answer is usually obvious, but all that most home owners know about subsidence is that they don't want it. And subsidence is rarely defined in policies.

Insurers sometimes turn down a claim on the grounds that the damage was not caused by subsidence but by 'settlement' movement - such as the compression of soil under the weight of a recently-constructed building. In our view, unless the policy provides a clear definition of subsidence, the term may reasonably be taken to mean any downwards movement of soil. So unless a policy expressly excludes damage caused by settlement, we consider that any damage caused by downwards movement of soil should be regarded - and covered - as subsidence damage.

Complications can arise if the policyholder changed insurers around the time when - as later becomes evident - subsidence movement and damage was already occurring (possibly without the policyholder's knowledge). In these circumstances we will take account of the ABI (Association of British Insurers) Domestic Subsidence Agreement. This says that one of the two insurers should deal with the claim, even if it includes damage that occurred during the other's period of insurance.

The following case studies illustrate some of the more common types of dispute we see involving claims for subsidence.

case studies

insurance disputes involving subsidence

insurer denies liability for subsidence damage on the grounds that it occurred before its own policy came into force

Mr K complained to us when his insurer rejected his claim for subsidence damage. The insurer thought Mr K's house had been exhibiting cracks and distortions for many years, long before its own policy came into force. So it did not consider it had any liability for the claim.

Following our usual approach in such situations, we set about trying to establish whether the damage continued to occur after the start of the policy under which the claim was now being made. The evidence was that the movement (and damage) was progressive. That meant that the property had been damaged by an insured event during the period when Mr K was insured. As is the case under most policies, this triggered the insurer's liability.

Strictly, under most policies, the insurer's liability is to repair (or pay for the repair of) damage that occurred after the start of its policy. This does not include any damage that pre-dates the policy. If the insurer is able to distinguish between the two sets of damage, it is entitled to do that. However, it is often impossible to distinguish the two sets of damage. That was the situation here.

If stabilisation is necessary to stop a property moving, then we believe it is needed just as much to repair damage that occurred during the insured period as it is to repair earlier damage.

complaint upheld
We said that in order to meet its liability for the damage that had occurred since it had started to cover the property, the insurer would have to pay for the repair of all the damage. This would include the cost of stabilisation if necessary.

insurer says it is not liable for subsidence damage that occurred before it took over responsibility for insuring the property

When Mr and Mrs E bought their terraced house in 1988, they took out buildings insurance through the bank that provided their mortgage. Ten years later, a different insurer took over the provision of insurance. The following year (1999), Mr and Mrs E made a claim for subsidence.

The insurer thought that most of the damage had happened before it started providing insurance for the property. It said that settlement/subsidence had been affecting the terrace as a whole for some years. This had caused long-term distortion and fracturing to the couple's house. And while there was some slight general continuing movement, subsidence movement of the floor had occurred before it had started to insure the property.

The insurer said it was liable only for damage that had occurred when its own policy was in force. So the schedule of repairs prepared by its engineers was restricted to damage thought to have occurred after 1998, and omitted general significant distortion to the property. The insurer considered this distortion to be historic, rather than the result of the recent subsidence. It said the fact that "corrections" had been made in the past confirmed this.

Mr and Mrs E said that substantial movement had occurred since they bought the property, and it had caused considerable distortion. They said that cosmetic repairs and decorations had been carried out from time to time, when damage and distortions became visible. They were aware that floorboards and joists had been replaced in 1980, before they bought the house - but they understood that this work had been carried out because of woodworm and rot.

The insurer did not consider the ABI's Domestic Subsidence Agreement to be relevant in this case, because it excluded damage that had "occurred before an insurer took on an insured risk".

complaint upheld
We established that there was no relevant period when the property had not been covered by buildings insurance. While some of the distortion was thought to have occurred after 1998 - when the insurer changed - it seemed likely that much of it had occurred before 1998, but after Mr and Mrs D first moved in and took out insurance.

We therefore said that the ABI's Agreement was relevant in this case. The property had been continuously insured, so we said the insurer should deal with the entire claim and could not exclude damage that pre-dated its own policy.

insurer refuses to pay for stabilisation because it says it is not liable for any preventative work

The insurer agreed that subsidence was the cause of the damage Mr C claimed for under his buildings policy. However, it refused to pay for any stabilisation work. Mr C felt this work was essential to put matters right and prevent future problems.

The report prepared by the insurer's engineers stated that minor movement would probably continue unless the foundations of the house were stabilised. The insurer said it would pay for any superstructure repairs and redecoration that might be necessary, as and when further movement occurred. But it argued that stabilisation was not strictly part of its liability, since its policy only covered the cost of repairs and it considered stabilisation to be "preventative, not restorative".

complaint upheld
After complaining unsuccessfully to the firm, Mr C referred the matter to us. Following our usual approach, we considered the insurer's contractual obligation under the terms of its policy. As is usual in buildings policies, the insurer was obliged to repair (or pay the cost of repairing) the subsidence damage.

In our view, the proper repair of a building requires something more long-lasting than a temporary patch-up. Filling cracks and repainting cannot properly be regarded as repairing subsidence damage if, within a relatively short time, those same cracks are likely to reappear. The expert evidence had indicated that, without stabilisation, the movement that had caused the damage would continue. So we said the insurer should meet the cost of stabilisation.

difficulties in dealing with subsidence claim from owner of a semi-detached house - when the entire house is affected, but the owner of the other half refuses to cooperate with remedial work

Mrs B, who lived in a semi-detached house, put in a claim for structural damage. Her insurer confirmed that subsidence was the cause of the damage - and that it affected the entire property, not just her half of it.

Mrs B's insurer did not cover the other half, owned by a Mr J. And Mrs B was unable to persuade Mr J even to discuss the situation with her.

After obtaining expert advice, the insurer decided to proceed with the normal remedy in cases where both sides of a semi-detached property are affected. This involves carrying out work to the foundations of both parts of the property.

If the insurer treated only half of the house, then any future movement between the two parts might result in a recurrence of the damage to Mrs B's property. Future movement might also create new damage to her property - or indeed damage her neighbour's property, leaving open the possibility that he would then hold her responsible.

The insurer spent a number of months trying to persuade Mr J to cooperate with the planned works. It even threatened him with legal action. Meanwhile, frustrated that nothing was being done to remedy the problems in her own part of the property, Mrs B complained - first to her insurer and then to us.

complaint upheld
This was a difficult situation all round. Persuading Mr J to co-operate represented the best hope for a solution that was both structurally sound and likely to maintain neighbourly relations. But there seemed little likelihood of obtaining Mr J's agreement.

Mrs B was contractually entitled to have the damage to her property repaired properly. The insurer had insisted that its proposed course of action was the only viable solution. However, the expert evidence that we obtained confirmed there was an alternative approach. This would not require access to Mr J's property. And it would stabilise the building - in a way that would probably prevent the subsidence causing further damage.

This alternative approach was technically much more difficult than the insurer's preferred solution. It was also very much more expensive. However, we told the insurer that, in the circumstances, it was the only reasonable and realistic way to settle the matter.

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ombudsman news issue 59 [PDF format]

ombudsman news gives general information on the position at the date of publication. It is not a definitive statement of the law, our approach or our procedure.

The illustrative case studies are based broadly on real-life cases, but are not precedents. Individual cases are decided on their own facts.