Drive Through Disaster: How This Building Owner Navigated His Insurance Claim
Restaurants have to be ready for everything: unexpectedly busy times, slow seasons and supply chain interruptions. Then there's the completely unexpected—like when a car rams through the building wall. And then when it happens again, two weeks later. Building owner Rick Kuhlman was able to navigate this exact situation with his insurance broker.
Rick Kuhlman and his brother have been in business since the 1980s—first, taking over a pizza restaurant on the University of Tennessee campus called Stefano's, then buying the 1940s building that housed the restaurant and eventually selling the eatery business but keeping the building. A longtime member of the Knoxville community, the Kuhlmans have always purchased their insurance through Shafer Insurance Agency, which is owned by a family they've known since they were young.
Early in the life of the business, their insurance representative recommended Westfield Insurance for their building because the necessary coverages were available there.
Everything went along as it should have, and the Kuhlmans went decades without any major incidents—save for a hail storm in 2011—until June of 2020.
“On a Sunday morning, I got a call from the supervisor of Stefano's," Kuhlman says. “A car was next door in the gas station, and it went flying out of the gas station and jumped the curb across the street and went into the building. Part of the car was in the kitchen—right through the wall into the kitchen."
Fortunately, the incident happened in the middle of the night and nobody was hurt. Still, there was a giant hole in the side of the building.
In the morning, Kuhlman called the Shafer Insurance agency owners, Andy Shafer and his father, Bo. They came down to see the damage as workers made a temporary fix, and started the claims process. They didn't anticipate anything unusual because the coverage was in place.
But then two weeks later, there was something else. It happened again—another car, another crash into the building.
“I got a call from the police late in the middle of the night, like about 4 o'clock," Kuhlman recalls. A driver had turned a corner and smashed right into the front of the restaurant, pushing in the door and tearing up the lobby. The damage from both accidents, which included a ruined mural, rang up between $15,000 and $20,000.
Navigating the Claims Process
Andy Shafer didn't think much of the first accident. “We see a claim like this every couple of years, and normally it's pretty cut and dry. Generally, as was the case here, there aren't any coverage issues. We don't have to worry about that," he says. “I was only about 2 miles away when [Kuhlman] called me. So I went down there and they were hauling the car off the side of the building, and his contractor actually was already there. With the restoration already started, we were able to discuss the timeframe and what the process would be. It would be relatively painless."
And then Shafer learned about the second accident. He was incredulous. “I said, 'Are you kidding? Are you serious?'"
Shafer assured Kuhlman that the process for the second incident would be identical to the first. Because the Kuhlmans had used Westfield for many years, Shafer was confident that the process would go smoothly. “Westfield is our first choice for small business," he explains. “It has very good claim service. It always has, and we expect it to always be that way."
Kuhlman says that Westfield went above and beyond in its coverage. The second accident, at the front door, destroyed the salad bar. Most companies would count that as “furniture" and not in the same category as building destruction, Kuhlman says, but because it was physically attached to the building, it was included in the replacement, saving the family about $1,500.
Kuhlman had to go out of town for three weeks, so he was concerned about how repairs would progress when he was gone. He needn't have worried—communication among all the stakeholders was flawless. “We had different people doing different parts of everything, and sure enough, everybody contacted everybody else," Kuhlman says. “It was an incredibly rewarding experience. The store really didn't close at all. And Westfield couldn't be nicer to me. We just had a wonderful experience."
Another helpful aspect of this project was that the contractor waited until all the work was done to send the invoice, keeping the accounting more streamlined and taking out the wildcard of estimates. By August, the building had been completely repaired.
“Once I began talking with these gentlemen at Westfield, I totally trusted them. We had a $2500 deductible [for each incident], which was fine. We paid that, and they had all the paperwork. They gave us a settlement that was very clear. We totally understood what everything was said on it. It was very easy, in fact," Kuhlman says.
Advice for Other Business Owners
Shafer says that the main rule to keep in mind when selecting a carrier and your insurance coverage is not to skimp on coverage. “Don't be pennywise and pound foolish. You get what you pay for and what you don't, so choose wisely so you are well protected and satisfied. It's not just all about price. Nothing in life is. I can go buy the cheapest plate of spaghetti I can find, but it's probably not going to be the same quality of something that costs a little more with better ingredients. That same concept applies in the insurance world."
He also says that communication is key to a successful outcome. “Treat your adjuster as a partner and work towards a mutual solution. And don't be afraid to call your agent with questions."
It's critical, Shafer says, to have an independent broker who is going to be there every step of the way—not someone who just gives you an 800 number to call and wishes you luck in figuring it all out. And because there's plenty of competition on price, a regional carrier such as Westfield will do just about everything it can to keep its customer service and claims process the best it can possibly be.
Kuhlman says that business owners like himself should go with people they can trust, and “pay that annual renewal fee, happily."
In case a disaster strikes, he says, “They know what they're doing and they will take care of it. And then that's something you don't have to worry about."
“We will always be with Westfield," Kuhlman adds. "If anybody has a question whether they should carry this insurance or deal with your company, you know, you just tell him to call this hillbilly in East Tennessee, and I'll tell them to go with Westfield."