Unprecedented flooding in Southern Louisiana has taken the lives of at least 13 people, left tens of thousands of people displaced, and washed away entire towns. Barriers to effective communication are still immense and could stay that way for weeks as the water recedes and people try to return home. In the face of this catastrophe, how can workers’ comp carriers best ensure that, first and foremost, claimants are taken care of, and also, protect themselves from legal challenges down the road?
Governor John Bel Edwards issued an Executive Order (see link at the bottom of this page) yesterday, amended from August 15th, confirming that all legal deadlines (including prescription periods and administrative courts) are suspended until September 9th while Louisiana remains in a State of Emergency and enlists help from the federal government to rebuild. As the Order explains:
“Deadlines in legal proceedings in courts, administrative agencies and boards affected by the flooding event, defined as the following parishes: Acadia, Ascension, Assumption, Avoyelles, Cameron, East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Evangeline, Iberia, Iberville, Jefferson Davis, Lafayette, Livingston, Pointe Coupee, St. Charles, St. Helena, St. James, St. John the Baptist, St. Landry, St. Martin, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, Vermilion, Washington, West Baton Rouge and West Feliciana, continue to be suspended until Friday, September 9, 2016.”
Waltz: At the very least, continue payments
The Order, in effect, protects carriers from some penalties in the event that a claim ends up in litigation later. Technically, injured workers have the responsibility to contact the insurer after a disaster, but on the carrier side, simply ignoring the fact that a disaster occurred is likely not in line with best practices.
Jeff Waltz, New Orleans-based attorney with his own The Waltz Law Group, explained that the statute addresses this issue specifically and states that penalties “shall not apply if the claim is reasonably controverted or if such nonpayment results from conditions over which the employer or insurer had no control.” However, if the discontinuance is arbitrary or capricious, penalties of up to $8,000 could be levied against the insurer.
“The best course of action for any adjusters faced with trying to coordinate benefits to an employee in a known affected area would be to attempt contact of those individuals to obtain a current mailing address, document attempts at communication, or, at the very least, continue payments and/or maintain the coordination of benefits as done before the catastrophe occurred,” Waltz explained. By so doing, good faith is ensured.
Brooks: Utilize social media
As for how to contact claimants, when cell towers are down or only semi-functional, and with electricity shut down in many areas, knowing where to start can be difficult. The ubiquity of social media though, presents a viable option.
“I am an advocate of the carrier’s use of technology including social media to assist agents, insureds, attorneys and claimants before, during and after a catastrophe,” Covington-based attorney Stephen Brooks with Pugh Accardo said. “It also can be used to advise agents, insureds, attorneys and claimants how a carrier can be reached, or where a carrier will be set up after a disaster.”
Like Waltz though, Brooks emphasized documenting communication, successful or not successful, as an important component of the adjuster to injured worker pipeline after a disaster like we’ve seen this week. “It is critical for the carrier to document any and all efforts to contact claimants (even if through counsel), verify mailing addresses and timely pay and/or approve benefits after a disaster,” he said.
Monson: A time to shine
Matthew Monson, in agreement with Waltz and Brooks, underscored the need to document attempts to contact the claimant, but further, he sees situations like these – in which people are hurting – as opportunities.
“When you have a disaster like this, carriers can really shine,” he said. “If adjusters put in the extra effort, and that effort is encouraged, to contact the claimant any way that they can, to reach out and make sure that their needs relating to their claim are being totally met – that goes beyond good faith and establishes trust.”
Editor’s Note: If you are interested in donating to help local flood victims, click here for the American Red Cross and select “Louisiana floods” in the drop down menu. If you would like to help residents rebuild, click here for volunteer opportunities registered with VolunteerLouisiana.gov.
Image Credit: The Advocate