By Nick DiUlio
At first it seemed like something out of a Hitchcock film. Certain vultures in Florida were acting quite strange indeed. Apparently they had developed an odd appetite for car parts.
According to several news stories over the past five years, employees at Everglades National Park in Florida have noticed that migrating vultures have a curious taste these days for windshield wipers, sunroof seals and other rubber and vinyl vehicle parts. The employees have apparently tried many different tactics to ward of the birds, but nothing seems to be working.
According to retired animal behaviorist Neven Gibbs, the problem probably has three triggers: boredom, texture and taste. Apparently soft rubber items are often a target for mammalian carnivores, certain birds and larger herbivores.
“The horses I trained enjoyed tearing the foam insulation off the watering jugs in their stalls, requiring ingenious methods to prevent weekly repairs during winter months,” says Gibbs. “This trait isn't restricted to any specific species. The more intelligent the animal is the more inventive they are in the destruction of man-made objects. These vultures undoubtedly just like the feel and taste of the wiper blades and seals. It’s kind of like the way humans like to pop bubble wrap.”
And the problem is not only perplexing to naturalists and drivers alike, but to insurance companies as well. According to an article in the Miami Herald, Everglades biologist dam Gelber had his GMC Yukon ransacked by the birds, with every piece of rubber and plastic on his sunroof, windows and hood ripped to shreds. His insurance company eventually paid him $1,850 for the damage, but not until after spending close to 20 minutes just trying to figure out whether or not his policy covered the destruction.
But this recent onslaught of car-eating birds is just one example of the many (many) strange and perplexing things that can happen to our automobiles, causing drivers to ask a critically important question: If my car should fall prey to an out-of-the-ordinary circumstance, will my insurance provider foot the bill?
The answer can be just as perplexing as the circumstances surrounding the claim.
The oddest of odd claims
Car insurance isn’t just there to protect us from accidents, and insurance industry literature is chock full of strange stories about drivers filing bizarre claims.
For instance, a 2008 issue of Claims Journal recounted the story of State Auto Insurance Co. agent Mike Rowe. According to Rowe his client was obsessed with fireworks. One summer night, after shooting off some fireworks in a nearby field, Rowe’s client drove home with the back of his pickup truck still loaded with dozens of unused explosives. The truck driver lit a cigarette and eventually flicked it out of the window—just seconds before it landed in the truck bed, igniting the fireworks and causing severe damage to the truck.
Or consider the case of a Seattle couple in 2011. According to Washington’s KOMO News, the couple was driving with a mattress on top of their SUV. As they drove along I-5, the mattress came loose and landed in the middle of the highway, causing a three-car pile up. The couple driving the SUV fled the scene, leaving the other drivers with a very messy and complicated insurance claim process.
The Michigan-based Hagerty Insurance, which writes insurance policies for collector cars and boats, has dozens of strange claim stories to share. For instance, a few years ago a Hagerty policyholder found a raccoon living in his garage. The owner’s dog frightened the raccoon, which quickly sought safety on the roof of the owner’s Jaguar E-Type. According to Hagerty’s website, “an epic struggle ensued…and the biggest casualty was the Jaguar.” The body of the classic car was riddled with scratches and claw marks, which required a “complete body makeover for one of the sexiest cars of all time.”
Hagerty also handled a claim that involved a curious bear breaking into a 1967 Chrysler convertible. According to the insurer, the car’s owner parked his classic auto in a wilderness area and walked away for a short hike. Shortly thereafter a nearby black bear apparently smelled something good, so it climbed inside the convertible “looking for food and decided to leave the owner a nice little gift—about five pounds of dung. The vehicle was scratched up, the convertible top was punctured and the owner had a very long ride home.”
Even if you don’t have any bears, raccoons, or flying mattresses to deal with you may encounter another unexpected insurance claim—flooding. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, this past summer’s flooding in Texas has caused severe water damage to more than 10,000 vehicles in the state—and large financial losses for those who were either uninsured or under insured for this type of damage.
Are you covered for unusual claims?
Broadly speaking, auto insurance can be divided into two different types of coverage: collision and comprehensive.
According to Washington D.C.-based attorney Thomas Simone, a personal injury attorney who specializes in insurance, collision covers damages due to (you guessed it) a collision. It is the cheapest, most minimal type of coverage you can buy, and it will most certainly not cover you if vultures eat your car or a bear leave piles of dung on expansive leather car seats.
Comprehensive coverage, on the other hand, is a bear of a different color.
“The tricky thing about this question is that not all comprehensive policies cover these types of damages from birds or other animals,” says Simeone. “It’s really going to depend on your individual policy.”
For instance, Simeone cites two different comprehensive policy descriptions from two major auto insurers. In one, it states that “the following is covered under Comprehensive Coverage and is not considered collision: fire; missiles or falling objects; hail, water or flood; malicious mischief or vandalism; theft or larceny; riot or civil commotion; explosion or earthquake; contact with bird or animal; windstorm; or breakage of window glass.”
The second, however, states that comprehensive coverage means damage caused other than by collision including “colliding with a bird or animal.”
Under the first policy, Simeone says the damage caused by hungry vultures would most likely be considered “contact with bird,” even though it’s not the sort of contact that comes from a bird flying into a vehicle. Therefore, it will most likely be covered.
However, under the second policy “colliding with a bird” is an explicit requirement to file a claim—not mere “contact” with a bird. And this is where things get frustratingly ambiguous.
“It’s an open question as to whether or not the damage caused by vultures or bears or raccoons would be covered by the second policy,” says Simeone. “Given the other types of comprehensive losses covered – which are very broad – it would seem that this would be covered. But it may not.”
Kevin Lynch, assistant professor of insurance at The American College in Pennsylvania, agrees. He likens it to vandalism.
“Exactly what types of damages are covered by which company’s policies are going to differ slightly, but you’ll most likely be covered,” says Lynch. “In actuality, the vandalism perpetrated by the vultures—ripping off rubber pieces of the car—are just that. Vandalism. So you should be good.”
Simeone is quick to point out, however, that filing this type of claim may not be worth it, since comprehensive claims generally involve a deductible that may be more than the damage is worth.
“Since the damage being done by the vultures is relatively minor—windshield wipers and rubber trim—it may not make sense to make a claim because the deductible may be close to or more than the damage itself,” says Simeone.
The damage resulting from the raccoon vs. dog showdown, however, is probably going to be worth filing a claim. In that case, Simeone suggests documenting the damage immediately. Take photos of the vehicle and jot down detailed notes about what happened and why. Then contact your insurance company before doing anything else to the vehicle.
Consider every variable
Even if you don’t frequently park your car under vultures nests in the Everglades or leave your convertible unattended in wildlife areas, California-based insurance agent Jeremy Schaedler says consumers should carefully read their policies and talk to their agents about what other types of obscure damages may or may not be covered.
“This is a very common question for folks out here in California,” says Schaedler. “For instance, a very common thing out here is damage from mice chewing on a car’s electrical wires. And the damage from that can be surprisingly expensive.”
According to Schaedler, the question of whether or not this type of damage is covered depends on whether or not the auto policy is a named peril policy. Named peril policies
provide coverage for all perils specifically named in the policy except those
that are clearly excluded. So before you’re faced with something like angry birds or curious bears, find out what is and isn’t covered.
“A typical consumer would most likely have to read his auto policy to see if damage caused by animals is covered, though for many policies it is,” says Schaedler. “The best advice is for a consumer to contact his or her agent or insurance company directly and ask very specific questions about what is and isn’t covered, no matter how outrageous the questions may seem.”