‘Inherent vice’ mars a move

But United Van Lines, the moving company, denied most of them, citing a sentence in a contract that features some of the finest of fine print I have ever seen.

Halfway down a page containing almost 2,000 words, the contract says it’s not liable for damage “caused by inherent vice of the article, including susceptibility to damage because of atmospheric conditions such as temperature and humidity.”

Got that? I didn’t think so.

Let’s begin in August, when the recently retired couple signed on with Humboldt Storage and Moving of Canton, which is an agent for United, one of the country’s largest movers.

Levine and Redpath spent hours with a Humboldt representative on the phone and in person at their Mansfield house, where they inventoried everything and discussed, among other things, what would happen if any of their furniture or other possessions were damaged in the move.

The Humboldt rep assured the couple they would be compensated for any damages under its “full (replacement) value protection” plan, a description of which appears prominently in the contract, at the top of a page and in type twice the size of the “atmospheric conditions” exclusion United later cited to deny the claims.

“If any article is lost, destroyed, or damaged while in your mover’s custody,” the full value protection plan will repair or replace it, it says.

It is “the most comprehensive plan available for protection of your goods,” the contract says.

“We asked if we were covered in the event of any damage to our possessions,” Levine said.

“Yes,” the rep said, according to Levine. “Any damage.”

The price of the insurance plan was $562.50, about 4.5 percent on top of the basic moving cost.

Levine and Redpath said the Humboldt rep never mentioned any exclusion of liability due to hot weather, which would have been a consideration since temperatures in Arizona routinely soar over 100 degrees in August.

Upon arrival in Arizona, Levine and Redpath discovered the clock split in two places, the keys of the piano warped, and the table blistered, among other items they said were damaged.

United told the couple its rejection of the claims was based on a report made by a “repair firm” hired by the moving company to inspect the damage.

“The report of the repair firm indicates the damage was caused by ‘atmospheric conditions’ (e.g., change in temperature or humidity),” United wrote to Levine and Redpath.

“Atmospheric conditions” are excluded from coverage “because the carrier is unable to control such conditions,” United wrote. “This exclusion is noted in the terms and conditions section” of the contract.

Levine and Redpath’s request for a copy of the repair firm report was at first denied by Humboldt.

The couple also asked for a record of the United truck’s movements between Massachusetts and Arizona, but that too was denied.

Levine said he suspects United improperly stored their possessions at some point in the nearly 3,000-mile trek across the country. He said it took only five days for the couple to drive to Arizona, but it took the moving truck 12.

“It was obvious from the damage to our items that, at some point, they were stored for a period of time in the trailer or a storage compartment that was left out in the sun,” Levine said.

The couple said they tried fighting for compensation, but were met with “just a bunch of runaround.”

Finally, in an e-mail to me, they asked: “Can you help us?”

United responded quickly to my detailed inquiries on behalf of Levine and Redpath with an offer of $4,000 for the clock, $2,000 for the piano, and $1,000 for the table. The couple said they are in the process of obtaining their own estimates for the cost of repairs or replacement.

“Our claims team at United Van Lines took a more detailed look at the claim, and are offering an additional customer service gesture to the customer,” United said in a statement to me.

“We are working with the customer to bring this matter to resolution,” it said.

I asked whether it was United’s contention that it can’t be held liable for hot weather, and if that was the case, shouldn’t it warn customers like Levine and Redpath before agreeing to transport their possessions to places like Arizona in August.

“Temperature controlled trucks are not used for standard household goods moves,” it replied. “We move thousands of families’ goods safely and securely every year to and from warm climates without challenges.”

I still wanted to know about “inherent vice,” because, according to the United contract, the company’s initial refusal to pay for damages had to be linked to the “inherent vice” of the clock, piano, and table.

According to the International Risk Management Institute glossary of insurance terms, inherent vice “is an exclusion found in most property insurance policies eliminating coverage for loss caused by a quality in property that causes it to damage or destroy itself.” One example I found online is paper that may contain the kind of acid that over time will cause it to disintegrate.

Did the clock, piano, and table have inherent vice, I asked United.

“The third-party furniture repair firm made the determination some of the goods had `pre-existing damage,’ which was noted on the inventory during loading and was related to inherent vice,” United said.

That seemed dubious to me, especially after Levine and Redpath sent me copies of the inventory that appear to contain no such notes of pre-existing damage.

Levine and Redpath said they haven’t decided whether to accept United’s offer.

I hope they reach a satisfactory settlement so they can go back to enjoying their retirement far away from the cold and snow of New England.

Got a problem? Send your consumer issue to [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.