'Insulting and distressing' - amputee's prosthetic leg considered 'baggage' by insurance company

An amputee has won insurance cover for her broken prosthetic leg after her travel insurer wrongly suggested the artificial limb was baggage – and if you wear specs, we suggest you read this right to the bottom.

Southern Cross Travel Insurance has apologised for the incident, saying it was a unique situation they have learnt from. Source: Fair Go

Sarah Fuhrer had been in Kosovo, on a class trip, during a year living away from home studying human rights law.

Fair Go took up Sarah's issue after mum Louise Fuhrer said Southern Cross Travel Insurance had tried to limit what it would pay for potentially costly repairs to her prosthetic leg.

Louise says Southern Cross told her "her prosthesis is only covered to $1500, it's considered baggage and we hadn't declared it as a specified item".

Southern Cross says at no time did staff directly refer to the 26 year-old student's prosthetic as "baggage" - but the way they did explain it to Louise, she was clear the break would be covered under the Baggage and Personal Items section of the policy - and not as a Medical Event.

"To suggest that something that belongs to her that essentially is a part of her is baggage, I find actually quite insulting and distressing," says Louise.

Sarah has artificial limbs on both legs above the knee. She had a fall on a staircase and snapped one at the knee joint.

"I use them for my mobility," Sarah Furhrer told Fair Go from Geneva, where she is about to sit exams for a Masters in Laws at the Geneva Academy.

"I'm in them more often than I'm not in them and they're a part of my identity and a part of my independence and I found that very obvious this last month where I've been so reliant on my wheelchair and so reliant on other people."

Louise had taken out the policy for Sarah. She declared the congenital limb deformities that affect both of her daughter's legs and one arm, as well as the amputations she'd had as a ten-year-old to fit better prosthetic legs. There was no option in the online form to specifically discuss prosthetics.

"Then it came up no further questions so we assumed that the prosthetics would be covered under a medical condition," says Louise.

Southern Cross Travel Insurance swiftly investigated and chief executive Chris White apologised after Fair Go got involved.

"Sarah's case (a damaged prosthetic) is not a scenario our staff are used to dealing with every day, but we've learned from it and have already started making changes so we can do a better job in the future," he said.

The case does highlight one common area of trouble for people who claim on insurance - disclosure.

When you take out any kind of insurance you have to disclose anything that could affect the likelihood or cost of a claim.

It can be anything - previous convictions; whether you park your car on the road, in a carport or in a garage; any actual health problems or symptoms of problems - that last bit, symptoms, can trip up a lot of people.

Part of disclosure is identifying anything costly to replace.

An expensive painting, perhaps, or a really flash watch. Most policies for contents or travel put limits on what you can claim for these. Insurers can charge your more for the policy and put an even lower limit if you fail to specify that item - or decline your claim entirely in some cases.

Southern Cross told Fair Go there is a gap in this case – that some amputees might not use prosthetic limbs - but that it was reasonable for Louise to assume in her daughter's limbs would be covered.

Southern Cross says since the limb was broken in an accident and is essential for mobility, then it is covered as a medical event.

The company says the industry practice of treating artificial limbs as personal items under the Baggage and Personal Items section applies when someone is transporting the limbs.

If there had been no disclosure of the limbs and they were travelling as baggage, they'd be deemed "unspecified items" and the potential pay-out limited.

In the Southern Cross Travel Insurance policy that's $1500. The company would advise people to "specify" the item, upping the coverage from $1500 to $10000, for an extra fee, of course.

The same would apply if you wear a very common prosthesis – a pair of spectacles.

Almost everyone who loses or breaks their glasses and claims on travel insurance does so under that "unspecified item" clause - but since they're almost always claiming less than $1500, no one notices.

If you are very short sighted and think losing your glasses would leave you so stuffed that you'd need to be choppered out of a national park or put on an early flight home - what's called "curtailment" in travel policies - then make sure you disclose myopia as a preexisting condition and make it clear to your insurer when you take out the policy, so that everything is covered under the policy.

There's more on disclosure as it applies to many policies here on the Insurance Council of New Zealand website.

As for Sarah, the worries that have distracted her for a month are now gone. She is concentrating on exams for a couple of months, and then taking a couple of days off in Budapest, secure in the knowledge she is covered and that her disability isn’t stopping her enjoying her OE and realising her dreams.