Plow drivers increasingly scarce as insurance costs rocket

Plow drivers increasingly scarce as insurance costs rocket

John Cote, of JB Cote Construction, says it’s simply become too expensive to pay the insurance for some large commercial lots.

There aren’t enough plow drivers to go around for the winter of 2018-2019, and the blame is being placed squarely on skyrocketing insurance rates brought about due to excessive claims of slip-and-fall injuries.

Contractors, especially the independent ones with a plow truck or two, are finding it both difficult and expensive to acquire insurance to work. This insurance, called “completed operations coverage” insurance, is beyond the regular business auto insurance to cover damage while a plow is on site, instead covering the costs if someone falls and claims an injury after the work is done.

John Cote, of JB Cote Construction in Lincoln and a Woonsocket native, said insurance has gotten so expensive that he’s given up one of his largest accounts at Stop & Shop in Bellingham, Mass.

“It’s just too easy for people to sue you, and people have no common sense, so you’re at fault,” he said.

This is already a tough business to be in due to the fact that one can’t count on the snow even coming, said Cote, who owns three plows and a backhoe.

Brian Hunter, of Hunter Insurance in Lincoln, told The Breeze that nearly all insurance companies have pulled out of selling what’s called “completed operations coverage” for when someone slips and falls and claims the surface wasn’t treated correctly.

“It can get to be really expensive,” he said.

Motorists are probably noticing a proliferation of signs along roadways advertising calls for plow operators, said Hunter. That’s because many plow owners are realizing the cost is just too great given the risk of losing all that money and are getting out of the business.

“It’s a problem,” Hunter said. “It’s getting awful.”

Just as a lot of snow can bring a boom year for a plow driver, a year of little snow is more of a bust than ever, as insurance professionals say there is no refund on an expensive policy if the white stuff fails to fall.

The only drivers who are “kind of off the hook” here, said Hunter, are landscapers, as their existing insurance policies will allow them to do private driveways.

Municipal or state work is getting very expensive, said Hunter, and many companies are getting out of it.

“It wasn’t a big issue until all the companies started deciding they didn’t want to insure all the plow operators,” he said.

Lisa Hunter, also of Hunter Insurance, said many insurance companies started pulling out of such coverage last year. The cheapest listed price for the insurance is $2,500, she said, “but I haven’t seen anything come through that low” in some time.

Instead, she said, the cost just for the completed operations coverage came in at $15,000 for one policy, and that was just to plow one 200-unit condo complex. She was able to get it down to $8,000 by going to another market, she said, but that cost plus $5,000 for general insurance still means a total bill of $13,000 for the year. Anything related to multi-family housing is leading insurance companies to seek more, she said.

Brian Hunter said Progressive is one of very few companies still insuring commercial vehicles used for plowing under a business auto policy. Progressive does not offer completed operations coverage, he said. This is a separate policy from another insurance company.

Hunter said he believes the increase in slip-and-fall claims (The Breeze wasn’t able to find specific data) is due to heavy advertising by attorneys who specialize in promoting injuries as a way of winning money. There’s more of that kind of marketing, he said, making society more conscious of windfall lawsuit settlements as a whole.

“People are inclined to sue more,” he said, and for many insurance companies, it’s simply not worth it anymore to try to keep up with the payouts.

Promotional efforts reviewed by The Breeze showed attorneys highlighting the fact that most personal injury claims never go to trial and the fact that the average slip-and-fall accident costs $30,000 or more in hospital bills.

Hunter said anyone can be sued if someone falls on their property during or after a snowstorm, whether it’s a homeowner, business owner or municipality. Once you clear a driveway, the liability goes up, he said. If a delivery person were to ever fall on someone’s front steps and then sue, he said, it would actually be better for that homeowner if they had left the stairs untouched as “virgin snow.”

Municipal officials are reporting struggles finding plow operators. In Cumberland, Highway Supt. Frank Stowik said the town has lost many vendors due to the increases in insurance. The town is still well short of what it needs, he says, and continues to advertise for plowing services.

The ultimate impact of this issue will likely be less plowing coverage during storms, said Stowik. More and more private developments are being accepted as public roadways in Cumberland, he said, meaning plow routes are getting longer even as help is falling off.

“Hopefully we’ve got enough (operators),” he said.

Other communities, such as Pawtucket, haven’t felt the impact as much. Director of Administration Dylan Zelazo said the city hasn’t had an issue getting enough plows on the road, but said he has noticed seemingly fewer plow drivers around. North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi said his community also hasn’t had an issue, but said the town also has mostly weaned itself off of outside contractors for plowing.

The way insurance works for plow drivers who cover municipalities, said Hunter, is that the operator must provide a certificate of insurance and must notify the city if he no longer has insurance. Municipalities will request that they be listed on the contractor’s insurance as an additional insured entity. Someone who is injured will then sue the town and operator, with the operator’s insurance protecting both entities. The operator has to carry at least $1 million of coverage.

Cote said dropping the Bellingham commercial account was only due in part to the insurance issue. In addition to worrying about insurance, plow operators have many other factors to consider when deciding whether to even take on a client or stay in the business. If someone cares about their customer, they really have to almost babysit the lot during and after a snowstorm, he said. In his case, he was often trying to guess at where the “fine line” of snowy precipitation was, as it could be raining in Lincoln but snowing heavily in Bellingham.

He said he’s maintained some of his other commercial accounts.

Like Hunter, Cote also placed the blame for this issue on attorneys who make plow drivers and insurance companies the natural targets, as well as a society that seems to always be looking for the fast score knowing that it’s easier to settle than go to court. The insurance companies aren’t at fault here, he said.

“They don’t want to lose money,” he said. “Accidents do happen, it is what it is. They just want to make sure they’re not liable.”