Can a Building Damage Assessment Exonerate an Intruding Black Bear?

John Rickauer, PE

A black bear intrusion in Colorado demonstrates the importance of proper building damage assessments.

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When is it appropriate to conduct building damage assessments? In many cases, claims adjusters and insurers can resolve building damage claims on their own. Where it’s important for a forensic structural engineer to be involved is under the following circumstances:

  • The claim is being subrogated
  • The cause of damage is complex/unique/unknown
  • Engineered repair recommendations are required
  • There is a suspicion of insurance fraud

Black Bear Attack or Insurance Fraud?

Our job, as forensic engineers, is to apply the scientific method and investigative skill to determine the root cause of damage or a failure. On one such occasion, I was called in to investigate a unique claim. A resident in Colorado was claiming over $500,000 USD in damage to their home, caused by an intruding black bear. The insured reported that scraping, caused by the claws of the bear, damaged many elements of the residence. The insurer suspected insurance fraud because of the amount being claimed and called me in to do a building damage assessment.

Building damage assessments often consist of the following:

  • Site evaluations
  • Interviews
  • Documentation of evidence
  • Review of existing evidence (whether from insured, insurer or public record)
  • Laboratory examination
  • Final report/findings

Using the Mohs Hardness Scale

In the case of the intruding black bear, I found that the vast majority of the scrapes being claimed were not caused by black bear claws, even though there was surveillance video of the black bear in the house. I used the Mohs Hardness Scale, which provides a measure of a material’s relative resistance to scratching with talc being the softest mineral at a rating of 1 and diamond being the hardest mineral with a rating of 10. A higher rated material on the Mohs scale can scratch a lower rated material, but a lower rated material cannot scratch a higher rated material. Bear claws are made up of an interior bone sheathed with a plate of keratin, which is a 2.5 on the Mohs scale.

Sample black bear claws measured and photographed during investigation, used to compare claimed bear scratches.

Many of the scraped building elements claimed to be damaged by the bear were found to be significantly harder than 2.5 on the Mohs scale, making it impossible to be damaged by a bear claw. Along with that revelation, it was determined that the sharp profile shape of the scratches was inconsistent with the typical blunt end of a bear claw. Additionally, some individual “claw marks” had actually been passed over multiple times with smaller scratches and there was disparate spacing between scratch marks from one area to another.

Upon examination and analysis, the vast majority of the alleged “bear scratches” were found to be mechanical and intentional in nature, occurring after the bear intrusion. In this case, engineering analysis and application of the scientific method uncovered extensive insurance fraud. Building damage assessments such as this can also uncover weaknesses in structures, poor maintenance, or clear-cut cases of damage caused by the elements. Where appropriate, having a forensic engineer conduct a thorough building damage assessment can save lives, property and even uncover insurance fraud. We’re experts in investigating all forms of failure within the built environment.

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