Bernadette Heald broke down at the banking royal commission.
Bernadette Heald broke down at the banking royal commission.

Family left homeless after insurance fight

IN APRIL 2015, the Heald family's Hunter Valley home was hit by a freak storm and extensive floods causing serious damage and before long, it was falling down around them.

But almost four-and-a-half years on from the natural disaster, the family have still not returned home thanks to a "stressful" and "frustrating" four-year battle with their insurance company, Suncorp.

Bernadette Heald broke down on the witness stand at the banking royal commission this afternoon while describing how the situation had affected her two children with special needs.

She gave a harrowing account of trying to comfort her youngest child, who also has anxiety, as the home crumbled.

"Wondering if our house was safe to live in was really tough," she said, describing how her young daughter would wake up in the middle of the night terrified the house would fall on her head.

"It's hard as a parent to tell her it's safe when you don't know yourself."

The Healds' son has also had a heart transplant in the past.

Suncorp eventually agreed with the family's request to move into temporary accommodation, and they have remained there ever since after their claim was hampered by red tape, delays and disputes at almost every turn.

The problem began when an engineer sent by Suncorp first declared the Healds' home would return to normal within six to 12 months after it "dried out".

The family disagreed, and were seriously concerned the home was unsafe as bricks had begun cracking and falling off.

Suncorp originally wanted to cash settle, which the family refused before contacting Legal Aid, with a solicitor urging them to lodge a complaint with the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS).

The insurer the offered the Healds $3000 in compensation and allowed them to choose their own engineer for a second opinion.

That engineer noted significant problems with the house's foundations caused by the storm, and went on to recommend the home be knocked down and rebuilt.

But despite the engineer's safety concerns, Suncorp didn't agree to move the family to temporary accommodation until early 2017.

Eventually, both FOS and Suncorp agreed the home needed to be demolished - but an agreement on how much it would cost could not be reached.

Suncorp's initial offer to repair the damage was just $30,000, which was later raised to $635,000 for a rebuild, while the Healds demanded $721,000.

FOS ordered the Healds be paid $744,000 in January this year, almost three years after the storm hit.

They are still living in their temporary accommodation while their new home is built.

Mrs Heald gave a moving account of the emotional toll the process had taken.

"I've never hit so many roadblocks in my life. Without Legal Aid, we'd still be left with no house," she said.

"The fact that we had to live in a house for over two-and-a-half years that was broken, that they knew about, and we had two special needs kids which they knew about right from the word go, was atrocious.

"The added stress of having to live in a house that's constantly breaking was really tough. "They were supposed to help us and we got nothing. You're entitled to have a safe home - that's what you have insurance for."

Suncorp's chief executive of insurance Gary Dransfield admitted the company had "failed" the Healds and said he was "deeply sorry".

Mr Dransfield said too many employees had been involved in the claim and the company had been "insufficiently compassionate" about the situation.

He said Suncorp's general insurance business AAI received 28,000 claims in relation to the NSW, with only nine involving the total loss of homes.

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