Watchdog attacks `unfair' insurers

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The Independent Online
Insurers are unfairly rejecting too many theft claims, citing a common policy clause that policyholders failed to show "reasonable care" in looking after their possessions, the Insurance Ombudsman said last week. A spokesman for the ombudsman pointed out that to use this get- out, insurers should go further and demonstrate a policyholder was actually "reckless" and "courted a known risk".

The ombudsman's office, which arbitrates on disputed claims, has seen an increase in cases where claims have been unfairly rejected for this reason, particularly related to thefts of - and from - cars. Between a third and a half of such cases have resulted in a claim being paid, which should serve as a reminder for consumers to fight their corner with their insurer and - if necessary - go to the ombudsman, whose service is free to the public.

The ombudsman judges each case individually. But there are some pointers which can help you avoid the "reckless" trap:

Leaving keys in the ignition of a car.

Generally this is seen as reckless, so it is up to the policyholder to prove otherwise, says the ombudsman. It is probably reckless to leave your keys in the ignition while paying for petrol at a service station or to nip into a shop for a moment.

But if you lived in a remote region of Britain and had been leaving your keys in the ignition for the past 20 years without any previous problem but then your car was stolen while in the area, you might argue that leaving your keys in the ignition was not a "known risk".

A "momentary inadvertence" of this kind might also be acceptable in other cases, for example if you get out of your car because of an accident or rush back into your house because you thought you'd left the gas on.

q Leaving possessions unattended in cars.

Many policies now say possessions must be locked in the boot. But drivers of estate cars, which don't have separate boots, might be able to argue they were exercising reasonable care in leaving items in the back of the car under a blanket. Or, if the condition is a recent addition to a policy held for some time, the claimant might reasonably argue they were not aware of it.

Leaving items on a back seat is generally reckless, says the ombudsman: "Insurance companies should not have to pay out where people have left their cars as open invitations to theft." He notes that some insurers now specifically exclude cover for any item left in a car, or for cars with keys left in. While this approach may be tougher, it is clearer and perhaps fairer, he says - so long as motorists are made aware of it.

q Leaving watches and other valuables unattended under towels on a beach.

This is generally regarded as reckless, but it depends on the alternatives (where else can you leave things when you go swimming?) and the value of possessions. Leaving small amounts of money and needed items such as prescription glasses, even if costly to replace, may not be reckless. But insurers might rea- sonably argue that policyholders should not leave expensive jewellery and large amounts of cash unattended on a beach.

Consumers are warned to avoid problems by checking exactly what a policy covers when they take it out, finding out what is expected of them and, where possible, following the conditions. Consumers can also improve their case with the ombudsman by arguing that a particular condition was not drawn to their attention.

Policyholders must exhaust an insurer's own complaints procedure before taking their case to the ombudsman.

Contact: The Insurance Ombudsman Bureau, City Gate One, 135 Park Street, London SE1 9EA. 0171-928 7600