Antonio Helm said he was told he could lose his home if he did not remediate water damage caused by an overflowing toilet.
Then, because of overflowing costs related to fixing the problem, the disabled Oak Forest resident was threatened to have his home taken away.
A toilet in Helm’s one-story house on West 43rd Street backed up Feb. 23 and covered a bathroom floor in a thin layer of unsanitary water, which he said he cleaned with towels and Clorox before calling Roto-Rooter Plumbing & Water Cleanup. By the end of the next day, the company had dug into his backyard to replace a faulty drainage pipe, gutted his bathroom and part of the adjacent kitchen and left large fans running to dry out the two rooms.
Helm amassed charges totaling more than $6,000, which he thought his homeowners’ insurance policy would cover, based on assurances he said he was given by at least one Roto-Rooter employee. But his claim was denied. He now has an outstanding balance of about $3,500 with Roto-Rooter, a national company that last week mailed Helm a letter saying it would put a lien on his 65-year-old home if he did not immediately pay in full.
“If something happens to this,” Helm said of his home, “I’m living under the bridge. Literally.”
Helm, 57, a former banker and insurance company employee now on a fixed disability income, said he sustained central cerebral cortex damage while being shot multiple times during a 1986 robbery. He is partially paralyzed on his left side, cannot use his left hand and walks with a limp.
He admittedly allowed Roto-Rooter to perform the work it recommended and signed the corresponding contracts it presented to him. But he claims he signed the documents under duress and was misled by Roto-Rooter, saying its employees convinced him to agree to water remediation that he later considered unnecessary.
Roto-Rooter’s Houston general manager, Jim Michael, disputed Helm’s claim and said the multiple employees who worked on the home followed industry protocols, did not guarantee the work would be covered by insurance and “did everything by the book.”
Nonetheless, in response to Helm’s complaint last month to the Better Business Bureau affiliate in Cincinnati, where Roto-Rooter is headquartered, Michael said Tuesday the company is willing to discount Helm’s outstanding balance by half and offer him a payment plan for the remainder.
“I’m in the business of making customers happy,” Michael said. “I’m willing to help the guy.”
Along with enlisting the help of the Better Business Bureau, Helm reached out to an area lawyer and a public claims adjuster, neither of whom was retained. Matthew Morgan of Morgan Elite Specialist Services, which negotiates with insurance companies for more favorable claim results on behalf of its clients, said he did not pursue Helm’s case because the potential payoff for his company was not significant enough.
Still, Morgan said he believes Wellington Insurance Group, which denied Helm’s claim, should pay him up to $5,000 as part of his coverage for foundation water damage. In a March 12 letter to Helm denying his claim, Wellington said Helm’s policy does not cover damage caused by water that “backs up through sewers or drains.”
“My reading of the policy appears to show that (Helm) was owed up to $5,000 for the loss,” Morgan said.
The adjuster on Helm’s claim, Wellington’s Eric Coffman, as well as Scott Poston, general counsel for the Fort Worth-based company, both declined comment.
Helm’s insurance agent, Kim Dugey of Goosehead Insurance, said she believes Wellington made the appropriate determination based on her client’s policy. She also said she told Helm to wait for the determination of a claims adjuster before allowing Roto-Rooter to begin its work, although that had already happened when Helm reached out to her Feb. 24.
Dugey said she didn’t understand how an overflowed toilet could warrant water remediation, which in Helm’s case included the removal of the wall between his kitchen and bathroom and cabinets near both walls.
“I’m like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait. Water backup? Why are you doing this?’ None of it made sense to me,” Dugey said. “I couldn’t even begin to wrap my head around that. You don’t do that to somebody.”
Roto-Rooter’s Damien Euell, who oversaw the pipe replacement in Helm’s home, said Helm agreed to that work and paid for it upon completion. Euell said he did not discuss insurance and was not involved in the water remediation.
Michael Leija, manager of Roto-Rooter’s water remediation department in Houston, echoed Jim Michael in saying that Helm was not misled about that part of the company’s service or the severity of the situation.
“It is an emergency,” Leija said. “Standing water in the house is going to be causing more damage. The longer you have water standing there, it causes secondary damage. That’s why we provide a service to the homeowner. If they want to proceed, we proceed. We can’t force nobody.”
Helm said he’s glad Roto-Rooter is willing to work with him on his outstanding balance, although he still contends at least some of the work the company performed was unnecessary. He said the contractor he subsequently hired to put his bathroom and kitchen back together, for $1,600, told him as much.
But Helm accepts some of the blame for his financial predicament, saying he should have read Roto-Rooter’s paperwork before signing it and should have found out beforehand whether his insurance would cover the work.
“Why was I stupid enough to allow it?” he asked. “I don’t know.”