Older and Wiser

An Interview with Industry Veteran Jim King

October 28, 2014 Photo

In Grand Rapids, Mich., not far from the banks of the Thornapple River and the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, is the Foremost Insurance Liability Claim Department that operates under the umbrella of Farmers Insurance. In that office is Jim King, a claims professional with 46 plus years of experience as a claim handler, supervisor, consultant and manager in the insurance industry. Here King discusses some of the changes he has seen regarding latent injury and environmental claims over the years.

Q: What is your background?
A: I graduated from Western Michigan University in 1968 and prior to that I spent three years in the U.S. Army Security Agency and three years as Security Manager for the Job Corps at Fort Custer, Mich. After graduating from WMU, I started my insurance career as a Claims Trainee with Aetna Life & Casualty. I eventually transferred to Aetna’s HO in Hartford as a Complex Case Manager and from there to Sacramento as a Claim Manager.

I saw my first continuous exposure, latent injury claims in the early 1980s. The first suits in this category were the intra-uterine device (IUD) claims,  but I quickly began to see some of the first asbestos bodily injury claims that I am still dealing with today. I retired from Aetna in 1998. Following that I did some independent consulting work and then took a consultant position with Gordon Food Service. I again retired after three years. Within a couple of months I was feeling unchallenged, so I took a position with Foremost in 2006 that enabled me to get back into latent injury and environmental claims.

Q: In your current position, what type of claims do you handle?
A: I am managing several accounts, but today it’s almost entirely run off asbestos and silica bodily injury claims. I’m still working on one large CERCLA-type environmental claim and a few benzene and vinyl chloride claims. I still see tenders for perc claims from time-to-time but those seem to be about over.

Q: What do the benzene and vinyl chloride claims entail?
A: These are somewhat different from asbestos in that the product is generally an automotive product that was sold in a spray can. These are most often wrongful death claims caused by leukemia. So far, the science does not seem to support a nexus so, in my view, these claims seem to be decreasing as well.

Q: Since 2005, when Judge Janis Jack issued her opinion in the silica MDL in Texas, have you seen a lot of silica-related claims?
A: They are still being filed in Mississippi and Texas, but not in the numbers we saw before Judge Jack’s opinion. For the most part, the plaintiffs are former sandblasters or foundry employees diagnosed with silicosis. Many of the claims filed before Judge Jack’s opinion are still on the docket in an inactive status.

Q: What are some of the changes you have seen over the course of your career regarding asbestos claims?
A: For the most part, the major asbestos property damage claims have faded away. The bodily injury claims continue to be filed, but Judge Jack’s opinion has also had an effect in that arena as well. I do not see these claims being filed in large numbers as we did in the past. In the old days it would not be unusual to receive 75 to 100 new tenders in one day! Today we see the quantity greatly diminished, but the claims being filed are more expensive and more difficult to defend and settle. We have all seen the ads on TV regarding these claims: “Have you been diagnosed with mesothelioma or lung cancer? If so, call this number.” In the past, we did not see the plaintiff’s bar advertising this way.

Q: In your opinion, where are the “asbestos hot spots” right now?
A:I still see a lot of activity in California and a fair amount on the east coast. Most of the activity in between is in Madison County, Ill.

Q: What makes latent injury claims unique?
A: Clearly the biggest factor is the continuous exposure aspect of these claims. Claim handlers cut their teeth on claims that have a specific date of accident — think of two cars coming together in an intersection. The concept of a claim with no date of accident is hard to grasp for most claim folks. Instead you have to learn to deal with an exposure period. That exposure period is usually calculated on the basis of date of first exposure and from there, over a period of many years, to date of diagnosis. This period of time is the latency period.

As an example, with asbestos, we may see a date of first exposure alleged during WWII when the plaintiff spent time on a ship with pipes covered in asbestos insulation. The alleged date of first exposure is 1944. In the lawsuit that is filed, the plaintiff alleges a diagnosis of mesothelioma in 2012. The exposure period is then calculated at 68 years. As a claims professional, it then becomes your job to determine how your coverage fits (or does not fit) into this 68-year exposure period since, theoretically at least, any carrier’s policy in effect during those 68 years could be triggered. Obviously it gets a lot more complex and challenging from that point forward.

Q: Over the course of your career, what is the most positive change you have noticed?
A: In the last few years I have been very encouraged to see a much greater emphasis being put on customer service. I see it as not only meeting your policyholder’s expectations, but exceeding those expectations. Claim handlers are being trained to put the customer first and to understand that their primary job is to take care of and protect the customer. If it’s a first party claim, that means taking care of the customer and making sure that the customer understands that we are here to take care of this problem for you. We don’t want you to have to worry. This is why you bought insurance.

In a third party situation it means pretty much the same thing. I imagine a customer who was served with a lawsuit last night and just spent a terrible, sleepless night worrying about it. In the morning, that person hears from the assigned claim handler that there is coverage for this and you don’t have to worry about it because we are going to take care of it for you. We’ve got your back.

Let me be quick to add a caveat here because, as we all know, it isn’t always that simple. If there are coverage problems, those problems have to be addressed on a priority basis. Clearly there is no insurance policy that covers everything. But if there is no coverage or if there are coverage questions, it becomes the claim handler’s obligation to take all the time necessary to explain those problems in language the policyholder understands.

There is a manager here at Foremost who puts it in these words, “Imagine your customer is your grandmother and you are explaining the situation to her.” I think that is an excellent way for claim handlers to understand their duty to explain coverage and coverage issues. The Farmers/Foremost claim handlers I associate with on a daily basis are making the connection between great customer service and job satisfaction, and that is good to see. I think they also understand that if you take great care of your customer, it goes a long way toward taking care of a multitude of other problems down the road.

Q: Anything you would like for your colleagues to know about you?
A: My wife Vivian and I like to explore, travel and learn. We assumed a motto many years ago: “Go, See and Do!” In fact, for many years our license plate read “GOCNDO.” We recently changed it to “1 TODAY” to remind us and everyone who sees it that today is a gift.

About The Authors
Multiple Contributors
Jim King

Jim King is a claims professional with Foremost Insurance Liability Claim Department.

Phil Fraley

Phil Fraley is a Partner with Litchfield Cavo LLP. 

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