Imagine your house catches fire and you make a claim for coverage under your homeowner’s insurance policy. After a few weeks, the insurer denies the claim. They don’t dispute the fire happened. But they say they don’t have to cover the damage because you didn’t cooperate with their investigation. They claim you should have sent them information about the loss and allowed them access to the property.
Can they do that? The short answer is yes – after a loss, you have a duty to cooperate with the insurance company. But this duty has limits.
Insureds, like insurers, have a general duty of good faith and fair dealing under Washington law that requires the insured to work cooperatively with the insurer. This duty is made explicit in virtually every insurance policy through provisions specifying what actions the insured must take following a loss.
Typically, the duty to cooperate with the insurer after a loss requires:
- Promptly notifying the insurer of the loss;
- Taking steps to prevent ongoing damage (e.g., turning off the water to stop flooding from a burst pipe);
- Documenting the loss (e.g., collecting photos or repair estimates);
- Allowing the insurer access to the damaged property;
- Providing the insurer information about the loss.
This general duty to cooperate is important. The insurer can deny claims if the insured fails to cooperate as required under the policy and Washington law. It’s therefore critical to cooperate with the insurer and to document that you’ve cooperated by, for instance, memorializing phone calls with the insurer and keeping copies of all the information you send them.
However, it’s also important to know your rights: the duty to cooperate has limits. The insurer can’t force you to do things that are unreasonable or onerous. The insurer still has the responsibility to fully and fairly investigate your claims at the insurer’s expense; they can’t make the insured do all the work. And, critically, even if you fail to cooperate, the failure must be so egregious that it prevents the insurer from adequately investigating the loss, or otherwise materially prejudices the insurer’s interests. In other words, the insurer can’t deny your claim for technical failures to cooperate.
In short, following a loss, it’s important to document your cooperation with the insurer’s investigation but also to be mindful of your rights.