Four months after the Atlas blizzard wreaked havoc on certain areas of the Northern Plains, some producers are facing the prospect of insurance companies refusing to cover storm-related losses. Meanwhile, other insurers are contesting what constitutes drowning, and that impacts whether they will pay claims.
“Insurance was an issue that blindsided our customers after the storm,” says Erica Koller, an Edgemont, SD, DVM. Koller, who worked with numerous rancher clients in writing reports for insurance claims, says many affected producers believed their losses were covered, at least in drowning cases.
“In many instances, these producers had cattle submerged in reservoirs, irrigation ditches, culverts or dams, meaning there was no doubt as to cause of death. They were told by their insurance company, however, that they wouldn’t cover anything related to the storm,” she notes.
Rapid City, SD, ranchers Richard and Sharon Perli were among those who carried insurance. They believed their coverage would help offset storm losses that totaled 50 cows and six calves. His cattle weren’t submerged in a body of water, but Richard Perli was initially confident about coverage, thinking it would qualify under “drowning from external causes.”
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“In my case, the cows that died breathed in wet rain and snow, washing away the surfactant that keeps lung tissue from sticking together, which is called ciliated epithelium. As the tissue stuck together, it reduced the area available for oxygen storage, resulting in the cattle slowly suffocating in a liquid they inhaled,” he explains.
Perli’s veterinarian confirmed cause of death after visually examining and posting multiple cattle, and submitting a report with his insurance claim. The report stated that “the cattle had lungs that were heavy and moist, and the cows drained water out of their nasal cavities when moved around. I found the cows died from drowning.”
However, the Perlis’ adjuster chose to ignore the practicing veterinarian’s report in favor of South Dakota State Veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven’s diagnosis as discussed in local news articles. Oedekoven stated that the majority of cattle in the storm likely died from pulmonary edema, or left-sided heart failure.
Oedekoven did not see any cattle in person following the storm, and relied on his staff veterinarians as well as reports and conversations with veterinary practitioners in the affected area when responding to media interviews. He confirmed pulmonary edema as the most logical cause of death, adding that his statements weren’t intended as confirmation of any individual case, or to override a report filed by a veterinarian in the field.
“I never intended the listing of one possible cause of death to cut the amount of an insurance payment, and would much prefer to see the insurance companies pay out to their customers who have paid their premiums. I would also not dispute any veterinarians who were in the field and made a different statement for a specific animal or animals’ cause of death,” Oedekoven says.
While pulmonary edema does involve a drowning event, it is the result of increased pressure within the capillaries of the lung tissue, causing lungs to leak serum from the blood. The animal does drown, but from fluid already within its own body.
“The contentious point in many cases is whether the drowning occurred from fluid within that animal’s own body as a result of physiological fatigue from stress, rather than the scenario of breathing that fluid in,” Oedekoven explains.
Lynn Stadheim, a Rapid City, SD-based DVM, exhibits no doubt about how the deceased animals he examined drowned. “Those cattle drowned from inhaled liquid. That is the nail on the head,” he states.
Stadheim began his determination of cause of death by first looking at the year leading up to the blizzard, which included abundant rainfall and grass production. This resulted in more saturated soils than average for the time of year, as well as cattle carrying 30-40 lbs. of additional water weight from consuming lush grass.
“We were also experiencing 80°temperatures, and those cattle were still completely slicked off and totally unprepared for any weather at all,” Stadheim says. “When you put over 2 in. of rain on already saturated, gumbo-type soils, it means those cattle, who were moving throughout the entire storm, were packing around a lot of extra weight in addition to being highly susceptible,” he explains.
That exertion eventually caused them to play themselves out, and many were found in an odd posture: with their back legs straight out behind them and their nose straight into the ground.
“If they were too weak to move their back legs — too weak to struggle onto their side and kick — they were too weak to raise their head, and they drowned from inhaling all that mud, water and snow,” Stadheim says. He explains that he documented his diagnosis in a report format for his clients, most of whom didn’t experience issues with their insurance claims.
Koller and her clients had less success, despite her clinic also writing reports and attempting to work with the very vague definitions of drowning provided by most insurance companies.
“We found that many ‘agriculture’ agents do crops, but haven’t a clue on cattle. They don’t understand the husbandry practices and general management we use. We had people in the agriculture business asking us why the cattle weren’t in barns or another pasture; they didn’t understand that it didn’t matter.
“As is true with many service positions, some agents are truly customer advocates, and others are just doing a job. I would highly recommend finding an agent that will advocate for you when you need them,” she notes.
Richard Perli concurs regarding the importance of having the right company behind an insurance policy.
“It’s disheartening to be with an insurance company for a long time and have them back out in any way possible to avoid providing a service you pay for. I have since dropped my old company. I have better insurance now, with a company that worked for and with their customers when they needed them to,” he concludes.
Heather Hamilton-Maude is a freelance writer and rancher based in Caputa, SD.
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