June 5, 2019 —Documentation is essential in filing insurance claims or reporting price gouging after a natural disaster attorneys stressed recently during a “Consumer Law Disaster Kit” workshop at the University of Houston Law Center.
Law Center Professor Ryan Marquez, director of the Hurricane Consumer Assistance Program, organized the event so lawyers would be sufficiently prepared when aiding clients in the aftermath of a hurricane. It covered numerous topics relevant to Houston attorneys as hurricane season begins.
Insurance attorney Martin L. Mayo of Martin L. Mayo & Associates delivered the flood insurance basics portion of the event. He emphasized the unique and complicated nature of flood insurance. He also provided tips on how to effectively file a claim.
“The worst thing you can do is not document your damages,” Mayo said. “In today’s world of cellphone cameras and digital cameras, if you don’t have 500 pictures you haven’t taken enough. “Stay in touch with your adjustor. Get everything in writing. Email them or text them. Do not talk to them verbally, do not let them make representations to you verbally.”
Erin E. Eckert of the Law Office of Erin E. Eckert, spoke about navigating home repairs after a disaster. She focused primarily on the Residential Construction Liability Act, which concerns defects that occur during construction on a new or existing house that cause physical damage to the property.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is that the RCLA is a cause of action, and it is not,” Eckert said. “It’s more of a method by which homeowners and consumers have to follow to give a builder or contractor an opportunity to cure their defects before forcing everyone into litigation and making things really expensive.”
Eckert also prompted those in attendance to remind their clients to maintain realistic expectations.
“The homeowner is not going to get 100 percent of what they want,” she said. “I tell homeowners, ‘Reasonable doesn’t mean 100 percent of what you want.’”
Contributing a governmental perspective on the impact of hurricanes were Rick Berlin and Stephanie Eberhardt from the Office of the Texas Attorney General.
“It’s our job as consumer protection attorneys to protect consumers in the business community by investigating and relating under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act as well as other consumer statutes,” Eberhardt said.
Berlin and Eberhardt recounted stories of flood damaged vehicles and price-gouging that happened during Hurricane Harvey, and offered advice on how to help clients whose vehicles flood or are made to pay excessive prices for repairs.
“One thing we see in our line of work is that people who are taken advantage of are those that can typically least afford to be taken advantage of or those least capable of dealing with it,” Berlin said.
He explained that in Texas, a vehicle may only be classified as flood damaged if it was totally submerged and it would cost more to repair the vehicle than it was worth prior to being flooded.
Concerning price gouging, Eberhardt cited the Texas Business and Commerce Code, which prohibits taking advantage of a disaster by demanding an exorbitant amount of money for necessities. She also detailed how crucial evidence is to combat price-gouging.
“Be sure to document,” Berlin said. “We were getting photos, which is great evidence for us, in real time of price-gouging that was going on. Having that documentation is invaluable to us when we’re going to investigate to see if we need to bring in action.”
Lastly Mark Grandich of Lone Star Legal Aid discussed typical landlord-tenant issues after a disaster, including frequently asked questions.
“The tenant’s issues are primarily asking if the landlord can either throw them out or make them stay after a storm, do you have to pay rent after a disaster or can the landlord fix damages,” Grandich said.
He said the answer depends on a number of variables, most notably on the severity of damage suffered by the property.