An Ontario couple's home insurance claim is being denied after the pipes of their emergency fire sprinkler system froze and burst, causing major damage.

Intact insurance is denying the claim, even though the couple followed Ontario's fire code and left the sprinklers operational while away on vacation.

Even your insurance broker may not understand your policy1:44

Michael and Diane Uniac live in an attached townhouse in Waterloo, Ont., and for past 19 years, they've been spending winters in Florida. Each year, they turn off the water before leaving, but not the fire sprinkler system.

"Never in my wildest dreams would it ever occur to me that I would ever consider shutting off the fire system, for heaven's sake," Michael Uniac told Go Public.

In January of last year, the pipe supplying water to the fire sprinkler heads froze and burst, severely damaging all four levels of the home.

"I was speechless," Diane Uniac said.

"There was insulation hanging down and walls hanging down and ceiling fans. It was just shocking."

Claim denied

Intact denied the claim, saying that under the policy, the water needed to be turned off and drained, including the fire sprinkler system, if the couple were away for more than a few days.

The Uniacs say they were shocked and confused. Under the building code, the Uniacs townhouse requires a fire sprinkler system that has to remain operational at all times.

"It's a real mess, a catch 22," Michael Uniac told Go Public.

Sprinkler Sign

The Waterloo, Ont., fire department told the Uniacs that their fire sprinkler system must be kept operational at all times.

"We've got the fire department on the one hand telling us we have to have a system and it's got to be maintained on at all times. We've got the city telling us we have to have the system it's a building code requirement. We got the insurance company telling us, you can't do that or you're not insured. It doesn't make any sense at all."

Intact knew the Uniacs had the fire sprinkler system and factored the added safety feature into the couple's premium.

"I put [a] question to our adjuster early on. I said, 'Supposing instead of a flood we had a fire, and we had turned off our fire system, what then?' Obviously I didn't get an answer, but I can guess what it would have been."

Damage estimated over $250,000

All the floors, walls, and ceilings had to be ripped out, and the home rebuilt. Original estimates placed the cost at somewhere between $250,000 and $300,000.

The couple have been doing some of the work themselves and so far have spent over $160,000, borrowing against their mortgage.

"Common sense dictates you leave your fire system on. The insurance was aware we had it.… I felt it was part of my contract with them to maintain protection.

"They really have the odds stacked in their favour. Things that can be legal aren't necessarily just or fair. I'll tell you that," he said.

Broker assumed couple covered

Even the couple's insurance broker, who's paid to interpret and explain policies, thinks the Uniacs should be covered, according to an email sent to the couple after the pipe burst. 

Scott Stanley

Insurance lawyer Scott Stanley says policies have become so complicated that even the experts have trouble understanding them. (CBC)

"He told me flat out in writing that you are covered, that no insurance company is asking anyone to turn off their fire system in the winter," Uniac said.

The couple are considering suing the broker and Intact, but were told legal costs would run about $120,000. That's on top of paying for the repairs.

'Couple did everything right'

Insurance lawyer Scott Stanley from the law firm Murphy Battista, says the problem is not the people but the policies.

"There's nothing these people could have done. If you had a client that acted perfectly — this would be that particular client," Stanley told Go Public.

"This industry needs to make the information simpler for people to digest. There's a problem when the insurance industry itself is struggling to understand the contracts that it's selling … if they can't understand it, there's not hope a regular person can."

The Uniacs say Intact made them an offer a while ago, but it doesn't even cover 10 per cent of the repair costs.

Intact Logo

Intact Insurance refused to comment on this story, saying the case is before the courts. (Intact Insurance)

After Go Public contacted the company, Intact's lawyers repeated its request for the couple to sign a confidentiality agreement. 

Even though the Uniacs have asked their lawyer to put any legal action on hold, Intact tells Go Public it won't comment because this case is before the courts, adding it is confident in its position.