Plenty of Insurance Coverage Protected His Business, Life Savings

Pumper James Penner was the rare small-business owner who carried personal workers’ compensation insurance in addition to covering employees. And it paid off big after a horrifying crash.
Plenty of Insurance Coverage Protected His Business, Life Savings
James Penner can be reached at

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In mid-2016, James Penner, the owner of AA Septic Service in Clayton, Indiana, was heading back to the shop on a rural road after completing a pumping job when disaster struck: Another vehicle — the driver apparently unaware that Penner’s 10-axle Mack vacuum truck was crossing his path and had the right of way — T-boned the Mack’s front end and knocked the front axle completely out from under the truck.

The vacuum truck flipped onto its side and spun around three times in the middle of the road, striking and toppling two telephone polls. When it came to rest on the driver’s side, Penner was trapped in the driver’s seat, where he had to wait for an hour and 45 minutes for a rescue crew to get him out.

Severely injured, Penner — the second-generation owner of the business — was off work for eight months. What saved him and his company was workers’ compensation insurance. Although he had to buy it for his employees, as the owner, he wasn’t required to get coverage for himself — but he did anyway.

“It’s something that nobody plans for,” Penner says. “It’s the little things. … You pay the bills for what you expect, but you never really anticipate needing it. There are a lot of things that are eye-opening that you don’t think about.”

As it turned out, the workers’ compensation coverage may have saved Penner’s business and preserved his personal savings. That’s because the driver of the car that hit him was underinsured and the bulk of his bills were ultimately paid for through the additional coverage he took out.

A year after the crash, Penner spoke about his experience and why he believes every business owner who must buy workers’ compensation insurance for employees should get personal coverage as well.

Pumper: What happened after your accident?

Penner: They got me in the ambulance and took me to the local hospital. I went by helicopter (to a larger facility). That alone was like $31,000. They operated from midnight until 3 in the morning.

The knob on the truck radio went through my skull. I had like 200 stitches on my forehead and my arm, I broke my clavicle, and all my ribs on my left side were broken. My right ankle was fractured, and my right knee had stretched ligaments. I was in six days from the initial accident, and then I came out and they decided they needed to set my clavicle.

I was home for a week, and then I was short of breath. I went back to the hospital; they thought maybe I’d gotten a blood clot in my lungs or something. (Instead, doctors found) my left lung had been punctured by the ribs that were broken. They did surgery: They deflated a lung, put a patch on my lung, and then had to file off the ribs so they would quit puncturing it. I was in the hospital for two weeks the second time for the punctured lung and the rib issues.

Pumper: How did having workers’ compensation insurance help you during this time?

Penner: If I hadn’t had workers’ compensation, it would have just been devastating. The first three days in the hospital there was more than $66,000 (Altogether, expenses ran into six figures).

Pumper: How long were you off the job?

Penner: Eight months. The first two months, I had to get my ribs and all that stuff healed. But once I got so I could function again, then I went to physical therapy for my knee and for my ankle — three days a week for six months.

Pumper: You had purchased workers’ compensation insurance for yourself as the owner and one of two or three principal workers. How did having that coverage help you?

Penner: It paid absolutely every bill 100 percent with no deductible, no out of pocket. They paid me a salary. When I went to a doctor’s appointment, there was always an (insurance company) nurse who went with me. She got me to the best doctors and nurses everywhere because she was always there. When I had to get an MRI, three hours later I was getting an MRI. They paid everything.

Pumper: A business has to have workers’ compensation for employees, but is it unusual that the owner/operator carries personal workers’ comp coverage?

Penner: I could have opted out of it, but thankfully I didn’t. It would have been devastating if you stop and figure eight months of lost wages.

Pumper: Why did you decide not to opt out?

Penner: It was probably the people who sold us the insurance. They said it was not that much more, and you need coverage on yourself as well. I figure if I’m buying insurance for the guys, I need it for me as well. We buy all of our insurance (from one vendor). It comes with an umbrella: they cover the workers’ compensation, liability, the truck insurance — it’s a package deal.

Pumper: Once you made the claim, did your rates increase?

Penner: Not at all. Because you’re in a pool, it doesn’t go against you.

Pumper: What advice would you give readers who are thinking about buying personal workers’ compensation coverage?

Penner: It’s just a no-brainer. There’s so much liability and things are so expensive that you can’t afford not to have workers’ compensation. And the same way with the insurance you buy. Cover yourself well so that you’re not dipping into savings or having to sell assets to pay bills or medical bills or just be able to live on.

And then the other thing: I actually have disability insurance. For what I paid in disability for over a 10-year period, I only received back about 50 percent. And to collect your disability insurance, they wanted my tax returns, my corporate tax returns for the last three years. Every month, they had to have a doctor’s statements; they had to have all kinds of documentation.

I wouldn’t recommend the long-term disability. If I’d took the $300 a month that the disability was and put it in a savings account, I would have been far better off.

(The disability policy was through a different insurance carrier than the principal carrier that supplies most of his other business insurance). I was just totally shocked at how difficult it was to collect. Clearly I was laid up and I paid all those premiums; I should be entitled to what they said. But that’s not the way it worked.

Pumper: Are there other advantages to workers’ compensation insurance?

Penner: Workers’ comp is all tax-free. The checks that I got every week were tax-free as well as the benefits at the end. It’s been a lifesaver for me. I couldn’t imagine anybody who didn’t have it. I’m a happy camper, and without workers’ compensation, it would have been stressful.

When somebody’s hurt, you need to follow whatever the recommendations are, and you need to follow through with all your appointments. We were never late for an appointment, we never missed an appointment, and they took that into consideration that we were doing our parts to try to get better. Therefore, we got whatever they thought we needed.

I just can’t imagine that there’s somebody out there who’s underinsured or not insured. The bottom line is when you walk out that door every morning, you don’t know you’re coming home. We all assume life goes on. One thing like that just opens your eyes; you’re not guaranteed tomorrow. When you leave that door, you tell your wife you love her because that might be the last time. You don’t know.


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