By S.P. Rook
This is a story of a man in his 80s (myself) and a woman in her late 70s, my wonderful wife of 55 years, and of the terrible treatment we received from the local franchise of Servpro following a fire at our house in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania.
I have been an ordained Lutheran pastor for more than 54 years with degrees from Muhlenberg College, an AB in Psychology, and the Lutheran Theological Seminary, both a Masters of Divinity and a Doctor of Ministry. I have served three very different parishes over those years.
In my capacity as pastor, I have spent almost my entire adult life involved with people, crises, and the problems and joys created by both. I am no stranger to receiving fine treatment from some and quite distressing treatment from others. Because of health issues, I can do very little in the way of a pastor at this stage in my life. Still, I am able to share a great deal of life experience and wisdom.
I have suffered from asthma since childhood and, in the last ten years from ever-worsening bronchiectasis, and have great difficulty breathing. I mention this because I believe that this company took advantage of us as a result of both our age and my condition.
In this article, we’ll talk about the importance of a thorough and detailed home inventory.
The fire that started the crisis
The fire began in the lower level of our home, resulting from an exploding lithium-ion battery. Thanks to the rapid and professional response of our fire department, the damage from that fire was limited to four items: the G-scale engine in which the battery was located, the battery cluster, a plastic trash can, and the plastic floor mat upon which I had cast the engine. It was the great amount of toxic smoke and soot damage that caused us to have our home cleaned and repaired by Servpro. Thankfully, our insurance company paid for that work. They also housed us in a fine hotel for nine weeks and covered all of our expenses.
Because the house had to be thoroughly cleaned, sealed, and repainted to stop the presence of those toxic compounds, the lower level and the first floor had to be emptied of all their contents. We paid, as given us by insurance, the “contents division” of Servpro, $30,000 to pack, remove, clean, and return our contents. That included our living room, dining room, kitchen, train room, work shop, and laundry room. They were to take those items to their storage facility and clean them where indicated. Once we returned to our house they were to return those items in the condition, at a minimum, in which they existed prior to removal.
That’s when things went terribly wrong.
It was with that process that the mistreatment of our possessions and the very poor treatment of the two of us by the GM of that Servpro franchise took place.
Had we had an inventory listing and had we made them initial every item they removed in the contents of that signed contract, we would not have been left without our items and without proper compensation for those things lost and broken. I would even recommend being there as those items are removed, especially if your health allows for that.
Once the cleaning and painting were completed we were able to return to our house. I notified the contents division that we were home. They told me it would be at least three weeks before our contents would be returned. They had not started cleaning them at that point. That would be 12 weeks after the fire until we had our possessions returned. Thankfully, all of our electronics, appliances, and anything that ran off of electricity or battery power had been perfectly serviced and returned by a subcontracted electronics firm.
Ever since we received an inventory listing of the items removed by the contents people, we have been in constant contact with them over lost items. I had photographed the contents of every cabinet, every shelf, every railroad item, and every tool on that lower level. Many had not appeared on the inventory lists produced and sent to us. To this day several still have not appeared.
Unfortunately, I had few photographs from the first floor where lost items also remain in limbo. I have learned from this experience and am now in the process of photographing and making inventory lists of everything on all levels of our home. I simply was not prepared to be a victim of Servpro’s treatment of our possessions. Do not let yourself be caught as we were. Photographs and inventory lists are indispensable.
Our items were finally returned but…
The day the items were returned we were faced with every room on those two levels stacked high with large boxes of them, at least 141 boxes. We were told that they had to be opened and checked in 7 days, and after that period, no claims could be filed against the company. There I was, on oxygen every night, unable to even walk around the block on most days, and told I had seven days to identify what was in 141 boxes located in 7 rooms on two levels of our house and determine their condition.
It was at that point that we were required by that company to pay them the full $30,000 before we were able to open even one box. I should have refused to pay anything more than 50% of that fee until the boxes had been checked.
For the next 6 ½ days, I got up at 6:00 am and did not get to bed before midnight, opening, unwrapping, and checking every item. The items were returned on a Friday, so we did have help from our immediate family that night and over the weekend. There were very few boxes which we opened that did not contain broken or destroyed items. We have well over 100 photographs of that damage, so much that we stopped photographing less than maximum damage.
- All but one of our large, commemorative Christmas balls, most given to us over 55 years by friends, were removed from all of their boxes, wrapped in bubble wrap, and then shrink-wrapped, many together, and reduced to shards of glass. To add insult to that destruction, some of the empty, individual boxes were returned to us.
- A pimple glass serving plate, a wedding gift in 1908 from my wife’s great aunt’s wedding, which I used for serving Holy Communion in my first parish and was stored in our dining room hutch, was returned broken. Like with so many other items, the broken pieces were wrapped in with the main item.
- A mug, a gift to my wife that past Christmas, had the handle broken off and wrapped, with it inside the mug. The wrapper had to know that it was broken before wrapping.
- A china teapot, given to my wife by her mother many years earlier, which started her buying that china patternfor our use, was returned wrapped very tightly. When it was unwrapped it was in two pieces. The wrapper surely knew about that as well.
- A table lamp, apparently too large to fit into the box was simply forced in and broken. The special eDevice unit that screwed into the lamp socket for remote and/or timed control, has never appeared.
- And finally, almost all of my large collection of nuts, bolts, screws, drill bits, and screwdriver bits, originally all in separate containers and labeled, were dumped out of all their containers into various plastic bags and bundles of rags. Like with the Christmas decorations, another box contained all the emptied containers into which I had sorted that hardware over the years, including the containers in which the drill and screwdriver bits had been purchased. In the bottom of one of those bags I discovered a fork from our dining room silverware.
I could go on and on with examples—a large crowbar packed on top of a box of china, a steel pipe cutter packed together with the top of a china butter dish (a top that did not survive that packing). But for the sake of brevity, I will stop here. We sent every photograph to the person in charge of that division, more than 100 of them, and we asked that individual to share those with the GM. In fact, we asked to have the GM come to our house and see the damage or at least call us directly. That never happened.
That week was not only terribly stressful, both physically and emotionally, but quite depressing as well. I had to use oxygen the entire time, when up to that point, I had only used it while I slept.
At the end of those seven days, with everything opened, we were told that the 7-day examination period would be waived. At that point, that did nothing for us.
What about compensation?
Since then we have been arguing with the GM about compensation, not only for everything broken and missing, but for the abuse of us trying to meet that deadline in the midst of our grief. We paid that Servpro franchise $30,000 to inflict such suffering and damage on us.
At a meeting—another story altogether—my wife finally got with the GM and the contents project manager – they admitted that the damage was caused by one employee. Unintentionally, they claimed, in spite of the nature of that damage—and they fired that person. It seemed to me, and I have no verification of this, that they actually knew something about our broken items being packed in that condition before they returned them. That may have been why they required full payment before we could open the boxes.
Their final statement to us—we have a copy of it—was that we needed to accept their paltry offer of a few thousand dollars, and sign a document never to write a negative review about them. We refused and were told that was it. If anything was to be settled it would have to be through legal means.
Let this be your warning.
Please beware. We were far too trusting that a franchise that was part of a national company would provide the service by which that company was known. We never thought we would be involved in a terrible situation like that fire and its aftermath.
In addition, we never had a written contract with that company. We were in such a state after the fire that we assumed everything contractually was being taken care of by the insurance company. I never thought that a nationally known company would operate without a written contract.
That was, perhaps, the biggest error we made. That gave them free rein to make us think their demands, like that “7-day opening boxes time”, were somehow legal requirements. Lacking a signed contract and an inventory listing, one that could be shared with the company, and having them mark, with initials, every item they removed was the main reason that I wrote this account.
I would even make sure that you can be present as those contents are removed and checked with initials on your listing, unless, like me, your health would not permit that. It would definitely take an investment of your time, but looking back at our poor experience with that particular franchise, an investment that, in the long run, would be worth it.
It is better to take the time and prepare yourself for such an encounter before it ever happens, than to wait until it is too late. Taking these precautions before they are needed will make getting through the tragedy a lot easier. If such an occasion never presents itself to you, you will be doubly blessed.
Have you ever had a bad experience like this?
Looking for a home inventory template? Grab our printable version here.
Have you ever dealt with the company Servpro? If so, how was your experience? Have you ever had an issue with getting your items replaced or repaired through your insurance company? Do you have any advice to share?
Let’s discuss it in the comments section.
S.P. Rook has been an ordained Lutheran pastor for more than 54 years. He and his wife live in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania.