A Tantallon man whose family home was extensively damaged in the wildfires said his insurance company has failed to pay out all of his expense claims and rent for a temporary place to live, and has stopped communicating.

John Engram, his wife, two children, and an exchange student from Italy were not at home when the wildfires broke out on May 28. Their home is located in Highland Park, one of the areas that received the most damage in the fires. Engram said while his house is still standing, there was extensive fire, smoke, and water damage to the structure and contents inside.

Engram said he first contacted his insurance provider, Johnson Insurance, on Monday, May 29. Johnson Insurance is part of Intact, the largest insurance provider in Canada. When he called, Engram was assigned an adjuster named Max. But Engram said since then, he’s dealt with two other adjusters, and has been “ghosted” by all of them, as well as a manager at Johnson who he contacted directly.

“The fire was 16 hours of terror. The aftermath since then… has been worse,” Engram said in an interview with the Halifax Examiner last week.

Engram said the process started out straightforward enough when he was working with the adjuster named Max. He said they worked together to get immediate needs such as clothing and a food per diem for his family. Engram submitted an expense claim and received one cheque for $9,000 about three weeks after the fires. The cheque was a welcome relief.

“At this point in time, I’m racking up credit like nobody’s business,” Engram said.

But when Engram tried to get in touch with Max again, he was told he was in mentorship meetings.

“I’m thinking if he’s the mentor, he probably needs to change his priorities,” Engram said. “And if he’s the mentee, then the mentor needs to change their priorities. We’ve got 100, 200 families that need somewhere to live.”

Engram said he was assigned a new adjuster named Bill March, who told him he needed a week to catch up on his file. Engram had sent more expense claims by then and told March he needed money. At this time, Engram and his family were living in a home in downtown Halifax owned by a friend, but Engram was looking for longer-term accommodations.

Engram said he tried to get a long-term rental he found approved by March, but that never happened. He was eventually assigned a third adjuster named Scott, who also told Engram he needed time to learn about his file.

Over the course of a few weeks, Engram said he lost out on a couple of long-term rentals as he was waiting to learn how much he could spend on rent.

While his file was under the care of Scott, Engram landed a long-term rental in Bedford, and is currently there with his family, with a rent cost of $5,700 per month. But Engram said Johnson hasn’t yet paid that rent to the landlord, which he said they’d do.

“I was told the cheque is in the mail. There were never any cheques in the mail,” Engram said.

In one email exchange, Engram said he informed Scott he was heading to Newfoundland for a family wedding that was planned long before the fires, and that his family needed linens for their rental. Scott said linens in their Tantallon home would be cleaned and they could use them.

Engram said he contacted Scott while he was out of province, and Scott replied with a photocopy of the Insurance Act about abandonment of property. The last time he heard from Scott was at the end of June.

Engram said he filed another five expense claims totalling $15,000, which haven’t been paid out, and he also hasn’t received a payment for rent.

Getting help from a public adjuster

Finally, Engram decided to get help from Francis Martin, a public adjuster with ClearClaims Inc. who has been working on the file on Engram’s behalf.

Engram said he even reached out to Amy Brace, a manager with Johnson, who never returned any of his phone calls or emails.

At one point, Engram said he got an email from the second adjuster, Bill March, with a PDF listing contents of a house. But the list wasn’t from Engram’s house, but rather from a Johnson client who lives in West Chezzetcook. Engram said he contacted that woman to let her know he had the list.

“I’m concerned where my stuff is going,” Engram said. “Is that going to someone else as well?”

Taking the issue to social media

Engram said he got some movement when he took to Facebook and Twitter to call out Johnson Insurance. He said Johnson Insurance and Intact blocked him on Twitter. Engram said someone from Johnson sent him a message via Facebook, but he told them to contact Martin, his public adjuster. Martin was told a cheque was in the mail.

“Cheque in the mail means nothing to me. Why do you send it mail? That’s the slowest possible way to pay anybody in today’s world,” Engram said. “I don’t know what address it’s gone to. Is it gone to my home address? Is it gone to my new address? Who’s it payable to? I have no idea. Is it gone to my private adjuster? Nobody knows.”

A line of trees burned by fire stand along a lot next to a home with beige siding. The lawn is green and some green weeds are seen in the ditch alongside the paved road.
John Engram’s home in Tantallon. Credit: John Engram

Beyond the issues with the lack of communication, Engram said he also has problems with the restoration company sent in to inspect his home. Engram said Johnson sent out staff from On Side Restoration, a Halifax-based company that is owned by Intact. Engram said the person who came to his home only looked at the house’s roof from about 60 feet away. And he inspected the attic by looking around with the flashlight on his iPhone.

“The insurance company wants to pay another branch of their insurance company to clean my contents and to clean my house,” Engram said.

Engram contacted five other contractors himself to assess the damage to the home. All of those contractors list work that’s more extensive than what On Side told Engram needed to be done.

Since Engram shared posts on social media, some of the contents of his home have been wrapped up. He said he did receive another cheque for $9,900 that is an advance to cover the cost of contents, but because On Side is cleaning some of the items in his home, Engram said he’s not sure how to spend that money. Still, Engram said the communication with Johnson is lacking and he’s received no other cheques for the remainder of the expense claims.

“What I want to happen is the cheques they have in the mail, I want them to arrive. That’s what I want. I want them to pay my rent on time,” Engram said. “They had promised to do both. Most importantly, answer your phone and answer your emails. This entire process is going to be a long one. I’m in no rush to get my house fixed. I don’t want to jump the line, I just want to be in the line. When we send you an email, answer it.”

“If Johnson thinks putting a few dollars in my bank account now is going to solve the problem, no, I need you to, going forward, be cooperative and communicate.”

Engram’s case not unique

Francis Martin, the public adjuster with ClearClaim Adjusters Inc., who is now working on Engram’s behalf, said unfortunately Engram’s case is not unique.

“Recently, it has been more of a common topic amongst insurers just because of [Hurricane] Fiona, all of the area in Halifax was affected,” Martin said. “So, now we have the fires. And currently over the weekend we had floods. This is only going to exacerbate the problem.”

A white man with reddish-brown hair, beard, and moustache dressed in a dark suite, dark shirt, and wearing a small pin on the lapel. He is sitting in front of a grey-black background.
Francis Martin with ClearClaim Adjusters. Credit: Contributed

Martin said there are two main reasons for the lack of communication with adjusters. First, there’s what he called “capacity.” That is, there are two many claims being worked on by too few adjusters. 

“If your phone rings all day and all you’re telling people is ‘I’m going to get to your claim’ but you’re on the phone telling everyone else you’re going to be working on their claim, you just spent the whole day not working on any claim at all. You can’t write cheques that way,” Martin said.

The second issue is around “protocols,” the guidelines insurance companies have to follow for claims. So, if a homeowner wants to get a cheque, the insurance requires certain receipts, certain reports, photos, and so on.

“Those are guidelines or things they adjuster has to do to satisfy the insurer that payment is warranted,” Martin said. “Those protocols bog down the adjuster from using their talent, because we have some talented adjusters out there, but they’re not allowed, by protocol, to do their work.”

As for Engram’s case, Martin said he also faced the lack of communication from Johnson Insurance. He said he contacted a manager whose outgoing phone messaged said she’d return calls within six days. Martin said he made the last call 10 days ago.

Martin said he received confirmation on Wednesday, July 19 that a cheque was in the mail for Engram.

“It doesn’t mean anything. Again, this is a very widely known issue that cheques are allegedly got lost in the mail two weeks after but we check up on them,” Martin said. “‘We’ll reissue another one,’ they’ll say, and that one we get, but it’s two weeks later.”

As well, Martin said he hired an environmental engineer/chemist who is now examining the contents of Engram’s home. Then they’ll work with Engram to find out the value of each item. Martin also hire a structural engineer to check out the patio on the home to find out what work needs to be done.

As for other homeowners’ claims, Martin said he suspects more delays should be expected.

“With the floods happening this weekend, I anticipate there will be some delays for those affected by the fires,” Martin said. “It’s a very unfortunate situation that the floods happened so quickly right after the fires.

Response from the insurance company

The Examiner contacted Johnson Insurance and asked to interview Emilie Dutil-Bruneau, vice-president of communications with belairdirect, the new rebranding of Johnson under Intact.

Jennifer Baker, a communications manager with belairdirect, said the company has been “actively working with Mr. Engram and their public adjuster to come to a resolution.” Beck added they are waiting on the evaluation report from the engineer Martin hired to visit Engram’s property:

While Mr. Engram’s home contents are being cleaned and damages are reviewed, we provided additional compensation above and beyond what is recommended in our guidelines for mass evacuation to cover living expenses and other items for Mr. Engram and his family. In terms of additional reimbursements, we’ve been instructed to send payments to Mr. Engram’s public adjuster.

As insurers, we’re here to help and our goal is to always get customers back on track as quickly as possible. While each claim is unique our approach is always the same – provide immediate service to start the process of getting the customer back to normal after an unexpected event.

Toll on the family

Engram said the experience dealing with Johnson has taken a toll on his family. He said he and his wife, Michelle, decided he’d be the family member to take care of issues with insurance.

“I’ve been an absentee husband for the last six weeks. I’ve been an absentee father for the last six weeks. I’ve been very moody and contrary. I’ve been irritable, I’ve been snappy,” Engram said. “My relationship with my kids has suffered. My relationship with my wife has suffered.”

As of publication of this story, Engram hasn’t heard from Johnson or received other cheques. He said he suspects he’s “one of hundreds of stories” dealing with issues with insurance, and he’ll continue to speak out.

“I am willing to speak for the people who are afraid. If my stuff magically gets straightened away, I’m still going to be a vocal person about this,” Engram said.

Suzanne Rent is a writer, editor, and researcher. You can follow her on Twitter @Suzanne_Rent and on Mastodon

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  1. While I feel for the man and his family, asking the insurance company to pay almost $6k a month for a temporary rental unit seems extreme. Why does he need such an expensive rental? I’m sure his own house is worth that but he is asking the insurance company to pay for a temporary place to rent not buy him a luxury house.
    Aside from that, I’d side with the family struggling to get their lives back to a sense of normalcy. I hope that by going public with his story he gets the insurance company to do their job. But I also hope the family have read the terms of their insurance.

    1. That amount raised my eyebrows a bit too, but my next thought was maybe he has a large family. For some, 2 bedrooms is legit not enough.

  2. Augh. Insurance companies seem to be doing a whole lotta grift these days…

    We had a similar experience around with “Economical Insurance” (…which is anything but, btw *ahem*) about a year ago.

    My husband was rear-ended while stopped at a red light. The other fellow admitted fault immediately, and there were many witnesses.

    Our adjuster with Economical Insurance said he’d get us a car rental right away so we would have a vehicle while our own car got repaired. Instead, we were promptly ghosted. Weeks later, we were assigned a new adjuster. He said the first guy we’d been dealing with had quit, and *oops* a bunch of info from our file had gotten lost. Over the course of the next eight months, our claim is passed around to yet two *more* adjusters, who also lost files/documents and ghosted us.

    Finally, I left one helluva voicemail with threats to embarrass them in a more public way. A manager called back and apologized – she said the last three adjusters had, in fact, been 3rd party contractors, and they had had some problems. :-p

    This lady was on it & finally got us properly sorted. But my god, it took 8 months + angry threats + the involvement of management to resolve pretty much the most straightforward claim ever.

    I cannot imagine what Mr. Engram is going through right now, and after he has already suffered so much. Someone needs to hold these insurance overlords to account.

  3. MR MacMillan is 1000% correct, the more documentation the better and when it goes to court, it will certainly help. This treatment of people by this insurance company is terrible, this is where the government of all levels should be intervening, ensuring that people are treated fairly. The provincial government has the power to regulate insurance companies the question is do they have the desire or ability to get it done. When you renew your insurance you know who not to insure with!

  4. Try this for any negotiation – insurance, income tax, fence issue. Anything.

    Make lots of dated notes from the start to track process whether things going well or badly.

    Follow up all phone calls with an email confirming what was agreed to and a to-do list with target dates for both them and you.