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Quake Insurance Loss Estimate Hits $11.2 Billion : Disaster: About 5,000 new claims have been made this year. The latest projection is $800 million higher than January's.

March 16, 1995|THOMAS S. MULLIGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Boosted by about 5,000 new claims since the beginning of 1995, the insurance industry's official estimate of insured damage from last year's Northridge earthquake was again revised upward on Wednesday, to $11.2 billion.

The latest projection is $800 million higher than the previous estimate of $10.4 billion, issued Jan. 5, and is based on 395,000 personal, auto and commercial claims arising from the Jan. 17, 1994, earthquake.

The quake remains the second-biggest catastrophe in U.S. history--in terms of insurance losses--after the $15.5-billion Hurricane Andrew, which ravaged Florida and Louisiana in 1992.

The massive quake losses have prompted nearly all of the major property insurers to halt or sharply curtail their writing of new earthquake insurance. And because state law requires companies to offer earthquake coverage to their homeowners policyholders, most carriers have also stopped writing new homeowners policies.

At the same time, scores of insurance companies have sought sharp increases in earthquake insurance rates. Several such rate increases--some exceeding 100%--were granted in recent months by state Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush or by his predecessor, John Garamendi.

The result has been frustration and sticker shock for consumers. Although real estate and escrow agents report that few home sales have been scuttled by buyers' inability to obtain required fire or homeowners insurance, coverage is high-priced and hard to find.

The latest estimate by Rahway, N.J.-based Property Claims Services, a unit of the trade organization American Insurance Services Group, was developed from a survey of the largest insurers doing business in California. The estimate does not include claims-settling expenses or losses involving uninsured property such as freeways and other public structures.

Gary R. Kerney, the organization's director of disaster services, said the main factors that keep driving the estimates upward are the same as they have been for several months: hidden structural damage that emerges only during rebuilding, and the additional costs to repairing those, both in construction and living expenses for quake victims.

Although policies often carry a one-year limit for filing of claims, many insurers waived or extended such deadlines in connection with the Northridge quake because discovery of much of the damage has been so slow to emerge.

About 70% of the claims are for damage to homes and the remainder for destruction of commercial property and automobiles, Kerney said. About 95% of the claims have been settled, the organization said.

State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., the largest U.S. home and auto insurer, said last month that its earnings for 1994 fell by more than two-thirds--to $524.4 million from $1.66 billion the year before--on estimated quake losses of $2.53 billion.

Allstate Corp., the second-largest U.S. home and auto insurer, expects its pretax quake losses to total $1.5 billion. That helped cut its 1994 net income to $483.8 million from $1.3 billion the year before.

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Times wire services contributed to this report.

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