Death is a real bitch. As an insurance adjuster, my involvement with death on a professional level is less about the existential issues that plague me in the evenings, and more about the nit and grit that accompany sudden death within the home. Death at work takes it out of its romanticized form and forces you to confront it down to the smallest detail, along with the family members forced to deal with the aftermath. The following are the stories of the four death claims I’ve had the privilege/misfortune of handling.
Claim 1: The Drunk
In the claims world, when a new claims comes in, the first thing most adjusters do is look at the summary description of what happened. Shortly into my tenure in the property department of my prior employer, I received a new claim, clicked on the summary description, and read “Cause of Loss: suicide.”
Insurance policies are pretty specific documents. They operate in 2 ways. Either they cover everything unless specifically excluded, or they cover nothing unless specifically stated. With buildings it’s usually the former, and with personal belongings, usually the latter. When this claim in, having never handled one like it before, my first thought was “why would someone file a claim for suicide? What’s suicide got to do with property?” Without reading much further into the details, I picked up the phone, called the number, and asked to speak to Mr. B. Very politely, the woman who had answered the phone replied, “I’m sorry, my husband committed suicide a few months ago.” I’d asked to speak to the dead guy.
As Mrs. B. explained why she had filed the claim, it was hard to imagine having had a worse evening than she had that night in December. Her husband was drunk again, and this time was threatening to kill her. She locked herself in a bedroom and called the policy. It wasn’t the first time. Too drunk to know better, and knowing the police had been called, he stumbled downstairs and out into the front yard, still waving his gun around and yelling. According to Mrs. B., when the first police lights were visible on the street, her husband walked around to the side of the house, screamed something at the police, then shot himself in the head.
Having had a few months between the suicide and the filing of the claim, Mrs. B was remarkably composed. By the time she finished her story, I’d forgotten why we were on the phone. Eventually she got to the point. “So, I just got a quote for replacing the piece of siding with the bullet hole in it. And there’s the clean-up bill of course…” The clean-up bill. For his brains. That had been on the walkway next to her garden. When the clean-up company came, they figured the most practical thing to do was to use a hose to spray his brains into the dirt, then shovel the dirt out in a wheelbarrow. Apparently your average wet vac is not designed for such purposes.
My job, as always, was to figure out what I could pay for under the insurance policy. It turns out, bullet holes are not excluded under the policy. While damage done on purpose IS excluded, since the widow is the only person benefiting from payment, the claims department decided not to enforce the exclusion. How nice of them. Policies also do not cover dirt under any circumstances. I made my call to clean-up company and asked for a copy of their bill, hopefully without mention of the dirt so I could pay the whole thing. As death claims go, this would be the easiest.
Claim 2: The Old Man
Mr. C was tired of his family members calling him all the time. He was convinced that they only called to see if he was still alive. He was really old, after all. So he told them to stop. A week later, you can guess what happened. Mr. C died in the most unfortunate of places. 6 weeks after his death, his body was found just inside the front door of his tri-level home. His family had apparently decided 6 weeks was long enough, and asked a neighbor to check on him. The neighbor didn’t have to knock on the door to know what happened. Rotting human is a smell one never forgets.
The front door wasn’t a very convenient place for Mr. C to die. The human body is not polite as it decomposes, so not only did Mr. C’s corpse stink the place up, his liquids went down the stairs towards the garage, and down the heating duct next to his body. The heat was set at “old man lived here,” which is not a low temperature.
The guy’s family lived out of town, which made my job easier. I met the clean-up company in the driveway, where I was cautioned to wear a mask. I should have listened. Entering the house, the smell-that-one-never-forgets almost floored me. If you’ve never had the pleasure, imagine a dead raccoon wrapped in an airtight plastic bag for a week or two, and then imagine you open the bag and stick your face in it really quick. It’s kind of like that.
Once I’d recovered from the smell, I asked where we should start. The tech pointed at my feet and said, “well, he died right there. The anti-microbial spray should be dry by now.” I looked down to find I was standing on wood sub floor, as the carpet, pad, and underlayment had all been removed in a radius of about 8 feet in each direction. So too had the carpeted stairs been taken out leading to the garage, and the ducting under the house. This was the only physical damage to the home. If only that were the extent of it…
Talking to the tech, I learned that dead body smell isn’t something that goes away with a few open windows. Most of the time, companies will clean and paint every surface of the house, clean every item in the house, and throw away anything made of paper. As for the paper, Mr. C’s family told me that they had taken a box of important papers back to Seattle with them after coming down to deal with the funeral arrangements. “Now that the papers have been here for a few days, our house smells like his house,” his son told me.
Claim 3: The Son
With claims 1 and 2, my arrival on site happened after the worst of the mess was taken care of. Not so with claim number three. Immediately after receiving the claim, I got a call from the homeowner. “Can you come out here right away? The clean-up people are here, but I don’t want them to get started until you’ve documented the damage.”
The house wasn’t far from the office, so I got there within half an hour. The clean-up crew was standing outside in their full body hazmat suits, looking ready for the apocalypse. The owner took me outside, and explained that his son had shot himself last night, and damaged the carpet. His son, I learned, was in his 20s, and for reasons unknown to me, had chosen to kill himself at his parents’ house, in his childhood bedroom. The scene in the bedroom was surreal. Trophies were still on the shelves, sports pennants were on the wall, and the bed looked like it was made for a 10 year-old. While the son’s body was gone, the mess he left behind was not. Someone tried to cover it up with a kid’s blanket, but it didn’t really work. I quietly measure the dimensions of the room so I’d know how much carpet needed to be replaced, and come back downstairs. The family seemed to be in shock, so they weren’t very emotional, and seemed to understand the claims process.
A few weeks later, my own shock came when I got the bill for the clean-up. To take the carpet out of one room and dispose of the biohazard material, the company was charging over $14,000. I looked at the itemized bill. $400 per small box of carpet. $100 per hour for labor. 20% overhead and profit (a charge only owed to general contractor who coordinate sub-contractors). I called and yelled at someone at the company’s main office, but their lines are well rehearsed. "Well, you see, brain fluid is clear, so it can't always been seen with the naked eye, so we have to make sure we....blah blah blah." I had three other companies write my comparable bids for the same work. The highest was $5k. None of that mattered. The company wasn’t backing down, and had mailed their bill to the grieving dad.
Most insurance companies make exceptions in the case of suicide. Biohazardous materials are specifically excluded from coverage. So is intentional damage, as mentioned earlier. But nobody wants to be on the news because they denied some grieving father’s claim, so we cover these things anyway. If that changes someday, companies like this will be to blame. I certainly wasn’t going to call the guy and tell him we weren’t going to pay the bill. I’m sure the clean-up company counts on this. Shame on them.
Claim 4: The Realtor
My most recent death claim is also the most interesting. A local realtor, having been convicted of some kind of mortgage impropriety which resulted in his license being taken away, decided he didn’t want to live anymore. As a realtor, he had a magic box which gave him access to any listed property with a lockbox on the door. This realtor scoped out an empty house, then went shopping.
As far as we could tell, the order of events went like this: The realtor parked his BMW in the garage of the empty house and shut the garage door. He taped a note on the front door of the house that read, “Dead body inside. Call the police.” He then went into the bathroom, where he put two tabletop barbecue grills in the bathtub, and filled them both with charcoal. I found out later that due to current emissions standards, the old trick of running a hose from your exhaust pipe into the car or garage doesn’t work anymore. The realtor consumed most of a bottle of Jack Daniels, snorted some heroin, lit the grills, and waited for the end. Two days later, a prospective buyer discovered the note and called the police. The police contacted the homeowner, who lived in the house next door, unaware that a corpse had been inhabiting his rental property.
There is no moral to these stories.