Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Bear break-ins reveal limits of insurance plans


October 29, 2020

Courtesy of Rebecca Heaton

A bear destroyed Rebecca Heaton's car this week on Small Tracts Road.

Earlier this month, a bear broke into Anna Hubbard's car which was parked in her carport and had recently been cleaned. The bear destroyed the interior of the vehicle, breaking windows and ripping paneling off doors. Hubbard estimates a replacement for her totaled car will cost roughly $20,000, a cost her insurance won't cover.

Haines has seen an unprecedented amount of bear-caused property damage this year, including a string of car break-ins in early October. The surge in property damage has been accompanied by an uptick in calls to insurance agents with the question: "Is bear-caused damage covered under my insurance plan?"

According to Juneau-based State Farm office manager Bruce Perry, the answer is: "It depends." He said this is the first time in the four years he's worked in insurance that he's seen bear-related claims.

"(In Juneau and Haines) I've seen six or seven claims this year," Perry said. "Most of the ones I've heard of were total losses where it would cost more to repair than the vehicle's worth."

Perry said in addition to the claims, he's received at least 10 calls, more than he has in the past four years, with questions about bear damage.

In Hubbard's case, she had liability insurance, which covers damage to another person's vehicle and their medical expenses in situations where the policy holder is at fault. It's the most basic type of coverage, a legal requirement in most states, but it doesn't cover damage to the policy holder's vehicle.

For cars, bear-caused damage is only covered if the owner has "comprehensive coverage."

"A tree falling on your car, an animal running into the road that you can't avoid, a wild animal getting into your car, that's comprehensive coverage," Perry said. "It's kind of like an act of god scenario."

In general, people with lower value vehicles are less likely to carry comprehensive coverage. Insurance companies recommend comprehensive coverage for higher value vehicles and for people who live in areas where things like vandalism are more common.

In addition to vehicle damage, bears have damaged houses, storage sheds and other structures in the Haines Borough this year.

A week and a half ago, a bear pulled off the exterior siding and insulation from a portable trailer near the ballfield at the Southeast Alaska State Fair grounds and broke through the door of another trailer. Executive director Kari Johnson said while the fair has insurance on its main building, it doesn't for many of the outlying structures.

"We do not have insurance on that building. Luckily, we'll be able to patch a lot of it up," Johnson said. She estimates it'll cost the organization less than $500. "It's not ideal, but it's doable," she said.

It's typical for insurance to cover bear damage to main structures, but it doesn't always cover outlying buildings, State Farm claims specialist Marie Stevens said.

"Homeowners insurance typically does cover bear-related damage," Stevens said. She said she hasn't heard of many limitations to coverage, even if the homeowner had an unsecured bear attractant that drew the animal to the property.

"None of us have seen that as a limitation. Bears are considered beyond your control, but ultimately, the claims department makes those determinations," Stevens said.

Bear calls to police have increased by about 600% compared to past years, according to police chief Heath Scott. More than a dozen vehicles have been broken into this month with owners reporting thousands of dollars in damage.

So far, 26 bears have been killed outside hunting season this year, the majority under the defense of life or property law. Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists believe the bear responsible for damaging vehicles was shot near the small boat harbor. On Monday, more than a week after the bear at the harbor was shot, Small Tracts resident Rebecca Heaton said the door to her Ford F350 had been opened and pushed outward so far it dented the door and front end of her truck. Later in the week, the bear returned and bent the door in half and ripped up the vehicle's interior.

"He shoved it so hard, he bent it," Heaton said. "I wish he had not done that. The point is, a bear breaking into vehicles is still happening. I wouldn't be surprised if it was the same bear."

She said there were no attractants in her yard, porch or truck.

"It's stupid to leave anything a bear would get into, in your yard," Heaton said.

She said a bear had also broken into her front porch twice this year. She started playing music from her porch and has yet to have problems in that area since, she said.


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