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THE FINE PRINT

Big rains in July flooded a Maynard storage locker. Whose fault is that?

Scott Goldman and his family stored furniture, clothing, artwork, and personal items in a commercial storage facility, where much of it was damaged due to flooding in recent heavy rains.
Scott Goldman and his family stored furniture, clothing, artwork, and personal items in a commercial storage facility, where much of it was damaged due to flooding in recent heavy rains.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Scott Goldman and his family had just finished dinner at their Sudbury home on July 9 when a distressing e-mail arrived on his phone.

It was from the self-storage facility where the family rented a small unit for $110 a month.

Their unit, the e-mail said, had been “impacted by flood water” from Tropical Storm Elsa, which had dumped several inches of rain that day as it passed through New England.

The e-mail urged the Goldmans to come to the storage facility “as soon as possible” to inspect their belongings.

Things didn’t sound too hopeful for the Goldmans when they read this sentence in the e-mail: “Next week we will have a dumpster placed across from the entrance, if you need to throw anything away.”

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Goldman said he and his wife rushed to Iron Clad Self Storage in nearby Maynard to find about an inch of water on the floor of their unit. A work crew was busy sopping up water in the 131-unit facility, which is situated in the basement of a hulking, 19th-century repurposed mill building near the center of town, he said.

Furniture, clothing, art work, and personal effects, including Lisa Goldman’s wedding dress and the children’s “memory boxes,” were damaged — a loss of a couple thousand dollars, Scott Goldman estimated.

Who bears the loss? The Goldmans? Iron Clad? An insurer? Whose fault was it? And does fault even matter?

Scott Goldman held a ruined piece of art work from one of his children.
Scott Goldman held a ruined piece of art work from one of his children. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

The first thing consumers in such straits should think about is insurance. Homeowners insurance covers your house, but also your personal property. Does that personal property have to be under the roof of your house to be covered?

No, it doesn’t. Some homeowners policies cover the property you take with you when you travel and the property you keep in a storage locker. Of course, many policies have coverage limits (no more than 10 percent of your personal property coverage, for example), exclusions, and deductibles.

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Goldman said his insurance agent told him his policy did not cover property in a storage unit. (If you rent and have renters insurance, it’s worth checking your policy for such coverage.)

The most likely policy to pay such a claim is one written specifically for the contents of the storage unit you are renting. Some storage facilities actually require you to have insurance, whether purchased from that facility or not, before they will rent to you.

Iron Clad, in its standard contract with storage tenants, says it “strongly recommends” that tenants obtain insurance to protect themselves against “all perils of whatsoever nature,” but apparently does not itself sell insurance. (An Iron Clad manager declined to comment for this story.)

One policy from a national storage chain that I found online offers some insight into how such policies work. In that policy, the maximum coverage is $5,000, which costs $16 a month, subject to a $100 deductible. But it carves out some limitations in its coverage: Payouts are capped at $1,000 for damage from flooding, and $500 for mold and mildew, and for rodent or insect infestation.

The policy also doesn’t cover such things as firearms, photographic equipment, currency and securities, jewelry and furs, and lottery tickets. Make sure to check if some of your items are excluded.

Goldman, who works in biotech, said he should have purchased insurance. “It’s my own fault for not thinking of it,” he said.

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But Goldman also said he thinks Iron Clad bears some responsibility for a drainage system that didn’t drain the deluge.

This is what Iron Clad wrote in its first e-mail to the Goldmans: “Due to the volume of rain from Tropical Storm Elsa, a drain in the facility could not keep up with the amount of rain water.”

Was it the fierce storm or the overwhelmed drain that should be blamed for causing the flooding?

Goldman said he asked about getting compensated for his loss, but that an Iron Clad employee replied he couldn’t because he had “signed the contract.”

Here’s what the contract says (in relevant part): “All property” stored at the facility “shall be at the [renter’s] sole risk” and that Iron Clad “shall not be liable …. for loss from theft, vandalism, fire, water flood, hurricane, rain, explosion, or any other cause whatsoever,” unless the loss is “due to the willful acts” of Iron Clad.

End of discussion? Is Iron Clad off the hook by virtue of that clause in its four and half-page contract? No, not really. There are at least two lines of attack on the contract. First, a “take it or leave it” standard contract like the one Goldman signed is different from one in which both parties actively negotiate the terms. Courts sometimes refuse to enforce “take it or leave it” contracts out of concern for basic fairness to consumers.

Another way to circumvent that clause would be to show negligence, which is a failure to take reasonable care to avoid causing injury or loss to another person.

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Did Iron Clad act reasonably in relying on a drain that proved to be inadequate? Was Elsa of a magnitude that no one could have reasonably prepared for it?

After the flood, Goldman pulled everything out of the storage unit and asked for a refund of the rent he had paid in advance for July and the return of his security deposit of $110.

Iron Clad said the deposit would be returned, along with rent for July, beginning on the day of the storm.

Iron Clad apologized for “the inconvenience caused by Tropical Storm Elsa and hopefully, you were able to file a claim with your insurance company.”

If you have belongings in a storage locker, now might be a good time to consider whether you are insured.


Got a problem? Send your consumer issue to sean.murphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.