Insurance Special Coverage

How Umbrella Insurance Protects Against Catastrophic Loss

Shelter from the Storm

Beth Pearson (left, with Alex Bennett) says a dog bite (not from this good boy, of course) could leave a homeowner without proper coverage in a bad spot for a long time.

Beth Pearson loves dogs as much as anyone else.

Working in the insurance world, she also knows people can be careless.

“If you have a dog, and that dog bites a dog walker or bites a child, if you’re sued, that’s a catastrophic impact that can affect your life for a very, very long time,” she said. “Or let’s say a teenage driver gets behind the wheel while impaired, and an accident ensues.”

In situations like this, she added, “I always say one thing: ‘I hope you have an umbrella policy.’ It’s that important.”

An umbrella policy, as its name suggests, essentially sits atop existing auto, home, or commercial insurance policies to deliver an additional layer of protection, especially against catastrophic liability loss, noted Pearson, president of Pearson Wallace Insurance in Amherst and Pittsfield.

Alex Bennett, vice president of Business Development at Pearson Wallace, suggested another example: an inground swimming pool.

“The neighbor’s child comes over, hops the fence, jumps in the pool, and even though he’s not permitted to get on your property, the owner can still be essentially responsible for the death — or responsible for someone who’s badly injured from a diving board, a slide, or any sort of pool-related incident on your premises.”

In short, personal liability coverage of $500,000 or $1 million is simply not enough when real tragedy — accompanied by soaring liability — strikes, said Nathan Lee, a Commercial Lines producer at Rush Insurance Group in Chicopee.

“We live in a litigious environment these days,” he noted. “One million does not go nearly as far as it did five or 10 years ago. It’s not a lot of money these days.”

Bennett said agents on his team look at the property and unique situations of each client and make recommendations based on their general net worth and the specific exposures they might have.

“You have to consider the potential impact of what could happen in a life-changing event, in a lawsuit, when you find yourself in a hole for something that insurance could have protected against.”

“Things can happen to anyone. If someone broke into your house and fell down the stairs, they can sue you,” he said, citing what most people would consider a particularly unfair example of liability. “You have to consider the potential impact of what could happen in a life-changing event, in a lawsuit, when you find yourself in a hole for something that insurance could have protected against.”

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of an umbrella policy is its cost — maybe $300 to $400 per year for $1 million in coverage, with additional layers of coverage available beyond that, typically in increments of $1 million.

“In its most basic form, an umbrella policy is an additional layer of liability insurance,” Lee said. “It’s additional layers above and beyond the primary, underlying policy, and its intent is to protect against catastrophic losses that exhaust that primary policy’s limits.

“If I have, say, $1 million in underlying protection, general liability, and I have an accidental death in an auto claim that comes to be a judgment of $3 million, that would exhaust the primary underlying policy, and I would look for that $2 million above and beyond that. The umbrella policy is really just an additional layer of liability.”


Know the Difference

On the commercial side, Lee said, there’s a difference between an umbrella policy and what’s known as an excess insurance policy. Essentially, excess policies provide coverage only when the underlying policy responds to a particular situation, like major injuries or death. Umbrella insurance, on the other hand, does expand terms and provides broader coverage for losses not outlined in the underlying policy. It also covers legal defense costs.

Nathan Lee

Nathan Lee says he recommends umbrella insurance to “absolutely everyone.”

“An umbrella policy is much broader, more comprehensive, and frankly, we don’t see it a lot in the commercial space,” he explained. “Excess liability policies are more common in the high-hazard businesses, like fuel dealers and aircraft machine shops.”

But it’s the unexpected nature of life that should cause all business owners to consider umbrella insurance, Pearson said.

“We know that the cost of insurance is expensive and continues to rise every year. But not having the umbrella is one of the major liabilities of running a business,” she added. “A commercial umbrella gives you excess coverage over the general liability limits, the auto limits, as well as workers’ compensation. If someone is gravely injured by a machine and the underlying workers’ comp is a million dollars, but this person is dismembered for life, it’s important for the umbrella to be in place to reach down and provide an additional million to the liability.”

Lee stressed that he recommends such a policy to “absolutely everyone.”

“It’s really the broker’s job to examine the historical claims of the individual, see where the trends are, and build a program that’s priced conscientiously to the customer around how much excess umbrella they can afford and what they need,” he told BusinessWest. “We make recommendations to the customer — they make their own decisions, but it’s up to us to recommend the overall program.”

Clients can also purchase multiple layers of umbrella insurance, each carrying a less costly premium than the one below it. The key is to make sure the underlying policy limit is high enough to trigger the umbrella with no gap in coverage.

“If the umbrella policy says they need an underlying limit of $1 million and you only have a half-million dollars, it may not respond because of that half-million gap,” Lee said. “In some instances, you can pay that half-million gap personally, but those are very critical components when building a program.”

On the personal-lines side, an umbrella policy sits on top of primary home insurance, primary auto insurance, or other underlying policies, Pearson noted.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a small businesses with few employees or an employer with 100 people. Businesses are not exempt from accidents. This can provide coverage against losing everything.”

“Say, for example, you have a car accident and someone is seriously injured in your vehicle and loses a limb or some other body part, and you’re brought into a lawsuit for medical expenses well as any liability issues. If another person is injured and can’t go back to work or has a long-term disability, your auto insurance becomes exhausted in situations like that. The umbrella comes down and covers costs above and beyond those limits, and defense costs as well.”

She agreed with Lee that $500,000 or even $1 million in primary coverage can disappear quickly in a catastrophic event. “When those become exhausted and completely paid out, the umbrella gives additional coverage if they need it.”

Most people, Bennett added, “can’t afford not to have one. It starts at $1 million, but it can go as high as $25 million or $50 million.”

Those numbers may seem exorbitant, he added, but clients should consider what they’re putting at risk without one, especially considering the reasonable cost of premiums.

“With the nature of our world and our country, you can’t have enough of it these days. I think of umbrella insurance as peace of mind and asset protection,” he said. “We look at the account holistically. We want to understand what the net worth is, and we want the umbrella to be equal to, or more than, the family’s net worth.

“God forbid something happens,” Bennett went on. “The question we never want to hear is, ‘why didn’t I have an umbrella policy, if there was a policy that could have covered me?’ In a death or a large lawsuit, all kinds of different things can come into play in a situation. You’ll sleep better at night knowing that you have protection.”


Critical Questions

In Massachusetts, most umbrella policies provide coverage for the policyholder and their immediate family members living in the same household, with some exceptions.

Meanwhile, on the commercial side, the nature of the business would impact the risk exposure and, hence, the level of coverage needed. While a $1 million umbrella might be fine for a storefront florist or clothing store, a business owner with a fleet of heavy trucks would likely need more.

In addition, the level of coverage should reflect not only one’s net worth, but future earning potential as well. A doctor who just graduated from medical school and plans a career in brain surgery might have little more than debt to show right now, but a lawsuit could put significant future earnings at risk.

The keys are to “make sure you have minimum underlying limits, and make sure that the excess umbrella policy responds. Those are critical,” Lee said. “And you really need to pay attention to whether it’s an umbrella policy or excess.”

Pearson said business owners of all kinds need to consider their exposure. While a new business might be trying to keep initial costs down, liability can rear its head at any time, and for often-unexpected reasons.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a small businesses with few employees or an employer with 100 people. Businesses are not exempt from accidents. This can provide coverage against losing everything,” she said.

“I’ve seen businesses have catastrophic events and not have an umbrella, and it’s a very tough situation to dig out of. This saves money because, even though you’re spending a little extra, you’re protected from the storms that may occur.”