Heather Hamilton-Maude
Caputa, S.D.

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February 24, 2014
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Drowning in Snow: Insurance debacles following storm Atlas

Following the October 2013 Atlas blizzard, many producers were relying on insurance they believed would cover drowning and suffocation losses to help ease the financial burden placed upon them.

The reality for many was that their insurance companies would not pay for losses resulting from the storm, causing frustration and questions regarding what actually killed cattle in Atlas, and why insurance companies were so often unwilling to work with their rancher clients.

“My policy stated it covered drowning from external causes, and that is what happened in my instance. The cows that died in the storm breathed in cold, wet rain and snow, washing away the surfactant that keeps lung tissue from sticking together, which is called ciliated epithelium. As the tissue stuck together, it reduced the area available for oxygen storage, resulting in the cattle slowly suffocating in a liquid they inhaled, which is a definition of drowning,” began Richard Perli, who ranches southeast of Rapid City, S.D., on the issue he took with his insurance company telling him the 50 cows and six calves he lost in Atlas would not be covered.

Perli, like many of his neighbors, had multiple head necropsied by his veterinarian, who filed a report with his insurance claim. Within the report, Perlie’s vet stated his cattle had lungs that were, “heavy and moist and the cows drained water out of their nasal cavities when moved around. I found the cows died from downing.”

His adjustor told Perli that he heard South Dakota State Veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven’s report stating the cattle most likely died from congestive heart failure and resulting pulmonary edema, and that he took that to mean they succumbed to the elements. He chose to take that report over the practicing veterinarian’s diagnosis of death.

Oedekoven confirmed that was the most logical cause of death in his opinion, which was formed by South Dakota State University Extension personnel and animal disease diagnostics lab employees, most specifically after studying a paper by Russ Daily in addition to conversations with numerous practicing vets in the affected area. He did not see any of the cattle in person following the storm.

“I never intended the listing of one possible cause of death to cut the amount of an insurance payment, and would much prefer to see the insurance companies pay out to their customers who have paid their premiums. I would also not dispute any vets who were in the field and made a different statement for a specific animal or animals’ cause of death,” said Oedekoven.

Pulmonary edema, or left-sided heart failure, occurs following extreme physical exertion, to the point that a lack of energy leads the animal to collapse. From there, other issues can arise, including hypertension or increased pressure within the capillaries of the lung tissue. As a result of that increased pressure, some capillaries start to leak and the serum from the blood actually leaks into the lungs, filling them with fluid.

“There is a drowning event with pulmonary edema. The contentious point is whether the drowning occurred from fluid within that animal’s own body as a result of physiological fatigue from stress rather than the scenario of breathing that fluid in,” stated Oedekoven.

He added that pulmonary edema was not the only cause of death he provided in reports following the blizzard. Hypothermia, exhaustion, drowning, suffocation from being buried in snow, and in some cases traumatic injury, such as being hit by cars, were also attributed to livestock deaths in Oedekoven’s report.

“I encouraged people to work directly with their insurance companies and practicing vets to make determinations. I would also suggest in any claim filing scenario to get a copy of the policy so the vet can see what it says and make their call in a truthful way that is in accordance with that policy,” continued Oedekoven.

While many producers continue to fight their insurance companies and in some cases pursue legal action, Perli among them, others were happy with their company’s response following the blizzard. In most cases, those people had policies with Farm Bureau Financial Services.

“We offer a unique optional coverage within the policy for freezing or smothering that not all companies do,” began Farm Bureau Financial Services spokesperson Nancy Doll.

She added that agents, adjustors and a dozen additional staff, who were brought into the area following the storm, spent the better part of a month in the field with their customers. But, even with those additional resources, the conditions made it impossible to reach all clients with a practicing veterinarian in the days following the storm.

“The vets couldn’t be everywhere, so we applied common sense to the law and allowed our adjustors to verify cause of death. Not all companies did this. The agent and adjustor rode with one client/member in his plan to locate cattle. Others four-wheeled for miles on end with customers to do the same. That type of activity went on throughout the month of October,” she explained.

In total, Farm Bureau responded to 45 claims related to the storm, and to-date 44 have been settled.

“We have heard good feedback and a high degree of satisfaction from those who filed claims,” Doll continued.

For Perli, the entire experience has been incredibly disheartening.

While he continues to work on his claim and pursue possible legal action, he has also switched insurance companies to ensure he does not face a similar experience in the future.

“It doesn’t say much for an insurance company that you’ve been with for a long time when they back out in any way possible to prevent providing a service you pay for. I dropped my old company and switched to Farm Bureau early in 2014. I have better insurance now, with a company that worked for their customers when they needed them to,” he concluded. ❖

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The Fence Post Updated Mar 17, 2014 11:43AM Published Mar 3, 2014 09:07AM Copyright 2014 The Fence Post. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.