Brought to you by:
Zurich
Zurich

'Morally wrong': landlord insurers' practices under spotlight

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google

Actions matter a whole lot more in the post-Hayne royal commission era, and promises to do right by consumers are no longer enough.

As Commissioner Kenneth Hayne puts it in his final report, to “act fairly” is one of six norms of conduct that is expected of financial services entities.

And right now, the general insurance industry is facing scrutiny over allegations that some insurers are “unfairly” going after tenants to recoup claims made on landlord insurance.

Consumer advocates WEstjustice and Choice say they have carried out investigations and found anecdotal evidence of renters facing demands to pay for accidental or unintentional damage caused during their stay.

This can be incredibly stressful for those targeted, who are often financially vulnerable, the consumer groups say.

“I think [insurers] are definitely treading the line with this conduct,” WEstjustice Acting Legal Director Matthew Martin told insuranceNEWS.com.au.

“And we also don’t think it’s morally right for the landlord insurers to be pursuing renters for damage that’s not intentionally or maliciously incurred by them.”

That’s true. But anecdotal evidence is a very flimsy base on which to build allegations that aren’t all that new. Every insurance company employs specialists to recover losses, and nobody likes it. But it’s a standard practice, and an essential one.

However, the consumer groups say that in some cases they have examined insurers provided no evidence of liability on the part of tenants. They say it is also “not unusual” to see insurers using “pressure tactics” such as hiring a debt collection agency or having a lawyer send a letter of demand to tenants.

In one such case a new migrant to Australia received a $133,000-plus bill for a fire in a Sydney apartment in January last year. The consumer advocates say the fire department determined an “electrical fault” caused the blaze – the man had left an e-cigarette charging and gone out when the incident happened.

The bill came in August from a debt collector acting on behalf of Longitude Insurance, which is backed by Chubb. An accompanying letter said “it is our opinion that you were responsible for the incident” and “as such we look to you for reimbursement of our client’s loss”.

In another case, a Victorian couple received a letter in June from Suncorp-owned GIO giving them 14 days to pay almost $78,000 for a fire that occurred last year at a property they were renting. The letter, the tenants say, made no reference to any assessment of liability, law or negligence.

insuranceNEWS.com.au understands the latter issue has been settled, with Suncorp waiving its payment demand after it spoke with the couple, who provided more details.

Suncorp says it will always look to speak with tenants to discuss incidents and to understand their individual circumstances. “This helps us to identify people that may be experiencing financial hardship or vulnerability, and where we may be able to provide assistance,” a company spokesman said.

The Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) says the peak body and its members “take seriously” the concerns raised by Choice and WEstjustice.

An ICA spokesman says it is “carefully considering” the advocates’ issues with its members, and is working on it using specialist expertise.

“We will continue to engage with consumer organisations including WEstjustice as we work through the issue,” the spokesman told insuranceNEWS.com.au.

Chubb does not comment on individual cases, but a spokesman says the subject of recovery actions in relation to tenants is being discussed between Choice and the ICA’s Consumer Advisory Committee.

“Chubb, as a member of ICA, is participating in these discussions,” the spokesman told insuranceNEWS.com.au. He says the business takes seriously its obligations to operate within the regulatory framework for recovery actions and continuously looks to improve its processes and those of the parties it engages with.

While the consumer advocates have made a point of emphasising that not every landlord insurer is “unfairly” chasing tenants for accidental or unintentional damage, they have ratcheted up their calls for action.

A campaign to ban insurers from aggressive approaches to tenants, and a complaint about the alleged practices has been lodged with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC).

ASIC says in an email to insuranceNEWS.com.au that it is “considering the issue”.

“We are also talking to other regulators as the issue raises broader issues including property and tenancy law, as well as the Australian consumer law,” the corporate watchdog says.

The general insurance industry has worked hard to improve its approach to consumers since the Hayne royal commission. ICA points out the updated General Insurance Code of Practice, introduced on July 1, contains more customer-centric provisions such as cost transparency as well as accountability for distributors and service suppliers.

The code sets the standards that insurers agree to meet when interacting with their customers, committing to openness, fairness and honesty in all their dealings with consumers, the ICA spokesman said.

There is also independent enforcement through the Code Governance Committee, which can impose tough sanctions for breaches.

But with ASIC now considering the matter, the industry has been put on notice. In the post-Hayne new world order, words must be backed up by actions.