Property insurance companies should review their practices with respect to depreciation in California following a new class action lawsuit filed against Farmers Insurance Company in Los Angeles Superior Court. It looks like this case may remain in the state court because the defendants are California companies and the class is limited to California residents.
The complaint (I don’t have a link to it but e-mail me if you would like a copy) focuses on a California statute enacted in 2004, which defined actual cash value, for a partial loss to a structure, or loss to contents, as follows:
In case of a partial loss to the structure, or loss to its contents, [actual cash value is] the amount it would cost the insured to repair, rebuild, or replace the thing lost or injured less a fair and reasonable deduction for physical depreciation based upon its condition at the time of the injury or the policy limit, whichever is less. In case of a partial loss to the structure, a deduction for physical depreciation shall apply only to components of a structure that are normally subject to repair and replacement during the useful life of that structure.
Cal. Ins. Code § 2051(b) (emphasis added). The plaintiff’s theory is that “physical depreciation” based on the “condition” of property should be limited to “actual wear and tear,” and cannot be based on the age or obsolescence of a building component or contents item. (But isn’t age part of “condition”?) The plaintiff claims that Farmers calculated depreciation based only on the age of items on a “straight line” method. The plaintiff alleges that Farmers could not have evaluated the “condition” of contents items because it never inspected them and relied only on a proof of loss submitted by the plaintiff. The plaintiff also claims that Farmers applied depreciation to items that are not “subject to repair or replacement during the useful life of th[e] structure.”
The complaint also focuses on a California Department of Insurance regulation providing as follows:
When the amount claimed is adjusted because of betterment, depreciation, or salvage, all justification for the adjustment shall be contained in the claim file. Any adjustments shall be discernable, measurable, itemized, and specified as to dollar amount, and shall accurately reflect the value of the betterment, depreciation, or salvage. Any adjustments for betterment or depreciation shall reflect a measurable difference in market value attributable to the condition and age of the property and apply only to property normally subject to repair and replacement during the useful life of the property. The basis for any adjustment shall be fully explained to the claimant in writing.
10 C.C.R. § 2695.9(f) (emphasis added). It is interesting that the regulation states that insurers may take into account the “age of the property,” contrary to other allegations made in the complaint.
California’s statutes and regulations governing depreciation in this respect are relatively unique. I’m aware of one prior putative class action that involved similar issues. Although these issues might not have any legs as a basis for a class action if the case reaches the class certification stage (the statutes and regulations plainly require an individualized, claim-by-claim analysis), property insurers would be wise to carefully review how their adjusters are handling depreciation in California.