When safe deposit boxes flood

HOUSTON – Dozens of people whose homes and property flooded thought they had protected their most valuable and important possessions by putting them in safe deposit boxes at local banks. They called consumer expert Amy Davis when they said their bank caused more damage by holding their property hostage for weeks after the storm.  She discovered if your bank catches fire or floods, the money in your accounts there is insured by the FDIC, but the contents of your safety deposit box inside the bank’s vault are not covered at all.

“You can’t go back and fix what was your great-great grandmother’s,” Aparna Shewakramani told Davis.

Every woman in Shewakramani’s family has worn ornate hand jewelry on their wedding day. She kept it in a safe deposit box at the Meyerland BBVACompass bank along with other family heirlooms.  Shewakramani boated past the bank on Beechnut when she was rescued from her flooded home at the height of Harvey’s floods; but didn’t have time to think about her possessions inside until she made it back.

“We began to call BBVA; and we said you know ‘Our things are still in there and we haven’t heard from you,'” Shewakramani recounted the phone conversation. “‘Why haven’t we heard from you. Where are our things?'”

Bank employees told customers conditions were too hazardous for anyone to enter. After nearly two weeks of calls and emails, a bank manager told Aparna employees had drilled open her box. The contents had been moved to the Bellaire branch where she could go pick them up.

“There’s Burmese rubies missing,” Shewakramani told Davis, describing what she saw when she saw her valuables in a Ziploc bag. “There’s Columbian emeralds that are shattered. There are diamonds that are just falling out. There’s a Tahitian pearl earring where one of them is there and one of them is not.”

The hand jewelry handed down from her great grandmother is in pieces.  Aparna wanted to take what was there, but bank employees said she’d have to sign a document agreeing that she was in full possession of everything in her box, waiving all claims against the bank. Aparna refused.

“The insult is when the flood came. Nobody could have stopped that,” Aparna explained. “The injury is when they started taking it into their hands and making it exponentially worse.”

When we stopped by the BBVA Bellaire branch, employees said we would have to speak with someone at the corporate office.

A bank spokesperson replied, answering our questions.

Q: Why are customers being asked to sign forms that state they are releasing BBVA Compass’ from any liability for any damage done to their items? Ms. Shewakramani said bank employees would not let her take her possessions unless she signed the form that also states that “by signing this, you are agreeing that you have taken the entire contents of your safety deposit box.” The customer does not believe all of her items are there. What is there is broken and damaged.

A: Safe deposit box lease agreements contain language stating the bank is not liable for damage to content from any cause other than the bank’s reasonable care and diligence. The customer would have signed this when they initially leased the box.

The form in question is standard operating procedure for safe deposit boxes that are forced open by the bank for specific reasons, and it allows the bank to have a record on file of property released back to the client. Liability release is consistent with language presented in initial lease agreement.

Clients have the option of contacting the bank with concerns before signing this document and collecting their property. BBVA Compass is responsible for making sure a logged history of inventory both kept and released is accurate, and cannot release safe deposit box content without this document.

When boxes are forced open, it is done with security and accuracy as a top priority. We encourage clients with any concerns to contact BBVA Compass directly for assistance.

Q: Why weren’t customers allowed to be there when bank employees opened their boxes? They believe whoever used the drill to unlock the boxes may have damaged the contents. Ms. Shewakramani’s jewelry is in pieces. Some stones are cracked or missing. What is BBVA Compass doing for her and other customers whose possessions was damaged because it took so long to access them?

A: Damaged safe deposit boxes were accessed to check for contaminants and mold after facilities were deemed safe. This had to be done quickly to stabilize content. The process was carried out with bank secured personnel in attendance, including armed guards, multiple employees and environmental crews to ensure the security of clients’ belongings, and that they were not exposed to contaminants that could be a hazard to their health.

Because the bank does not have keys to the safe deposit boxes of its clients, drills were used to open locks. The locking mechanism and the content area of the box are separate, precisely so that drilling the box’s lock will not damage items. This process was carried out meticulously with the security of our clients’ belongings as our top priority.

When clients lease safe deposit boxes, they sign an agreement releasing the bank for liability pertaining to the contents of the box due to any reasons other than the bank’s reasonable care and diligence. Access to safe deposit boxes was delayed due to slow receding floodwaters and the environmental hazards they caused.

Every precaution, procedure, action and decision by BBVA Compass after the storm was executed with the security, safety and best interests of employees and clients in mind. We encourage customers with concerns to contact BBVA Compass directly with any questions they may have.

A consumer attorney told Davis that Aparna and other customers will have to prove that the bank somehow damaged or lost her property and that it wasn’t damaged in the flood. As for that waiver, he said she should not sign any document waiving her rights to sue in order to get her belongings back.