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Unity family rebuilding while wrestling insurance company over skunk spray

| Monday, June 19, 2017, 12:30 p.m.
Jeff Himler | tribune-review
Scott Gray contemplates the massive work ahead to renovate his Latrobe home after it was invaded by a skunk. /Photo credit: Jeff Himler.
Scott Gray is rebuilding his family's home after the spray of a skunk ruined the previous structure.
Jeff Himler | tribune-review
Scott Gray is rebuilding his family's Latrobe home after the spray of a skunk ruined the structure and all the family's belongings.
Jeff Himler | tribune-review
Scott Gray looks at a boarded-over 'doggie door' where a skunk entered his Latrobe home, then sprayed its scent.

A Unity man claims his home was “skunked” twice — first by the striped pest that became trapped inside, then by an insurance company that refuses to cover the damage caused when the pungent spray ruined most of the home's contents.

According to Scott Gray, who is working with a private adjuster and an attorney to contest the denial, his insurer indicated a chemical component of the skunk's spray triggered the “pollution” exclusion in his policy.

David Gilligan, a spokesman for Gray's insurer, Nationwide Insurance, said the company doesn't publicly comment on specifics of claims and, before rendering a decision, “considers the individual facts and circumstances of the claim in light of the applicable insurance policy provisions as well as any applicable state laws.”

Said Gray, “Everybody has those pollution exclusions, but that's like if Latrobe Steel blows up and the chemicals go flying, or if we have nuclear war.”

Michael Barry, spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute, pointed out that, in a disaster at a plant, an affected homeowner would have recourse to seek compensation from parties deemed responsible. A skunk attack wouldn't fall under that scenario.

“The pollution exclusion is a standard one in policies. It usually takes extraordinary circumstances for it to be invoked, but this sounds like one of them,” Barry said, referring to the skunk's invasion and spraying of the Mission Road home on Oct. 29.

Gray discarded almost all the contents of the three-story house, filling nearly a dozen Dumpsters, and stripped the structure to the wood frame to eliminate the pervasive odor.

He has spent about $30,000 on just the first steps of making the home livable again — including painting the wood with an odor-blocking primer and replacing insulation, he said.

With the fate of his insurance claim uncertain, he's done the labor himself to advance the project with the support of family and friends.

“I do it a little bit at a time,” he said of the restoration. “My family and friends, they're the reason I'm this far.”

Barry referred to a standard homeowner's policy that could include among exclusions “nesting, infestation, or discharge or release of waste products or secretions, by any animal.” Excluded pollutants might commonly be defined to include “any solid, liquid, gaseous or thermal irritant or contaminant,” including fumes.

The animal infestation and secretion language is “not an uncommon exclusion,” said Ron Ruman, communications director for the Pennsylvania Insurance Department. “We don't have any law that addresses specific exclusions that can or can't be in a homeowner's policy.”

When the department receives a complaint about insurance coverage, “Often we can mediate and advocate on behalf of the consumer,” he said.

Gray said the skunk entered the home through a “dog door” while he and his wife, Amber, were away trick-or-treating with their children — Aiden, 10, and Addison, 9. The animal was removed by the Game Commission and, luckily, tested negative for rabies.

A professional restoration company's efforts abated the odor just “a little bit,” he said, so the family had to discard anything with a porous surface. He estimated it will cost more than $50,000 to replace major pieces of furniture and about $14,000 for a new kitchen.

Even worse, Gray said, “I'll never have a picture of my kids when they were 2. I don't have a wedding photo anymore.”

An online Go Fund Me account has attracted more than $1,700 toward a goal of $10,000 in donations for the family.

Relatives are organizing a spaghetti dinner and raffle fundraiser, for 3 to 8 p.m. July 8 at A.V. Germano Hall, 100 W. Second Ave., Derry.

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6622, or via Twitter @jhimler_news.

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