Q&A with Tom Shell, Forensic Plumber


Earlier this summer, we picked up a press release about Tom Shell, who runs a plumbing company in Florida that provide services ranging from plumbing repair and installation to … investigations for plumbing-related insurance claims.
Shell began this work after receiving a request from a law firm in 2018 that he lend his expertise in the field to help them with homeowner insurance claims. He’s now considered a leading expert plumbing witness in Florida.

Shell didn’t always want to be a plumber, and was working for his father plumbing business while attending school with the idea of becoming a doctor.

In an effort to earn more money, however, Shell took time off school and eventually became the youngest master plumber in Florida at 23. Eventually, he took over his father’s business in 2004.

“Now, in addition to working as a master plumber, it’s my job to investigate claims and testify in court,” he says. “I can use my experience investigating claims to improve my own plumbing business. That ensures our customers get the best plumbing services available in the area.”

PHC News: Let’s start by bringing us up to date on your plumbing business. 

Shell: At the moment we have seven service techs and vans and three office staff, one of whom strictly handles my schedule. We only do service work. For many years we did new construction and, at one point, had 40 trucks going out each day. When the housing market crashed in 2008, we scaled back and focused only on service.

PHC News: You have an interesting origin story about how you got into the trades. Not many contractors we know were considering becoming a doctor. Why don’t you fill us in about your dad and how he started the business, and what exactly made you become a plumber.

Shell: My dad started the business in 1979. I graduated high school in 1992 and started going to college with aspirations of becoming a physician, and I also worked for him part-time.

One day he decided that he wanted me to become a plumber as opposed to a doctor – and he stopped paying me as much. I thought to myself, no problem, I’ll get a second job after I get out of class and began delivering pizzas in the evening.

That wasn’t a very well thought out plan. When was I going to study? Then I decided that I would take a year off school, save up some money and go back when I had my bankroll. That never happened!

So, I decided that I was going to become a student of the plumbing industry. If this is what I’m going to do, I would do it to the best of my ability. I made minimum wage the first two years that I worked for my dad. One day I asked our secretary, “Do you know when it will be possible for me to get a raise?” She said that she would ask my dad for me. He couldn’t just say no, right? His response was, “He can get a raise when he gets his license.”

I was 23 when I received my plumbing license, making me the youngest master plumber in Florida. After receiving my plumbing license, I was asked by the state of Florida to begin writing test questions and answers for future exams that would be administered to prospective plumbing contractors. 

PHC News: Let’s jump into your insurance investigation work. Can you tell us about your first case?

Shell: My first case was in December 2018. My secretary told me that there was a lawyer on the phone who wanted to speak to me. The first thing that came to mind was, “Oh no. What have we done?”

But what she wanted to know is if we had a sewer camera. I told her that we had more than one.

She then asked if we would be willing to investigate a claim. She explained her firm represented an insurance company and that the homeowner had claimed that the cast-iron pipe had failed and caused damage to the home. I thought that this sounded interesting, and I wanted to help.

Then she told me that the home was in Daytona Beach. We are in the Tampa Bay area, approximately three hours from Daytona Beach. I explained to her that I didn’t think it would be a good business decision for either of us to send a tech on a six-hour round trip. 

She then let me know that it couldn’t be a tech and that, as the license holder, I needed to be the one who investigated the claim. I thanked her for reaching out, but had to respectfully decline.

Then she told me what the pay was. I immediately responded with “What’s that address?” 

I did that one, then about two weeks later I did another for them. Then a second law firm reached out about doing an investigation for them.

It has snowballed ever since. Now I am performing these inspections for more than 65 different law firms and insurance companies.

These are all cases where a homeowner has filed an insurance claim for a water loss. The insurance adjuster comes out, makes his or her determination and the insured does not agree with the decision that was made. Therefore, the insured decides to sue their insurance company. I do investigations for both sides. Although the majority of my work is for the insurance company, I am non-biased and just give the facts of what I observed: good, bad or indifferent.

PHC News: Can you describe your basic MO when you get called in to investigate?

Shell: The majority of the claims that I investigate are related to cast-iron pipe failure. I receive an email that gives the name of the insured, the insurance company involved, the address of the property and usually a list of dates and times that all parties are available. Because I cover the entire state of Florida, it can get tricky trying to schedule a time and date that works for everyone, but we settle on a date and I prepare for the inspection.

I always make a layout of where the drainpipes run through the home. So, when I arrive at the property, I will draw the exterior walls of the property on an iPad program that I use. I will photograph all of the plumbing fixtures, under all sinks, behind tubs if accessible and will turn on all of the plumbing fixtures to determine if the plumbing is working properly.

All the while I am video recording what I’m observing. I will take photos of any damage that could be attributed to a water loss. Since the majority of my investigations involve drainage pipe, I will then run a drain camera through all of the roof vents and clean outs to inspect the entirety of the plumbing drainage system. I locate where the pipes run beneath the home and draw the pipe in the layout that I have drafted. 

During this process, I take a lot of notes about what I observed, potential causes and what it’s going to take to fix it. I am not allowed to speak to the homeowners because they are represented by an attorney. Therefore, I am oftentimes going in with no knowledge as to what they are claiming to have occurred. It’s sometimes difficult to put together a case when the homeowners don’t want you at their property and they’ve been instructed not to speak to you. But, it is a lot of fun to look through documentation that has been provided and put together a timeline. 

PHC News: Since you started do this in 2018, how many cases are you involved in on an annual basis?

Shell: I am inspecting more than 600 claims a year. Florida is a very large state – it is 840 miles from Key West to Pensacola. I cover all of that. As a guy who hates driving, this is a huge task for me. The van I use has 123,000 miles on it. I bought it with 21 miles on it two years ago.

PHC News: We don’t mean to make light of this, but do you have a favorite or at least a most memorable case you can tell us about? 

Shell: I have two favorites. One of which I actually visited the home and the second, I never even went to the property. 

The one that I went to was to investigate a cast-iron pipe claim in Tampa. The homeowner and their attorney claimed that the cast-iron pipe failed and was causing damage to the soil beneath the home.

When I arrived at the property it appeared to have a spacious crawl space beneath it. This is not the norm in Florida as most homes are slab on grade. I began walking around the outside of the home and found a 2-foot by 2-foot door in the rear.

The homeowner’s representative said “You don’t need to open that. There isn’t anything in there.”

I opened the door and could visibly see all of the PVC drain pipe beneath the home. Their representative said, “Oh, they just had this pipe installed temporarily so they wouldn’t have any further backups.”

A simple permit search showed that the PVC pipe had actually been installed 14 years prior and was in place before the claim was made.

The second memorable case was one that I wasn’t even truly involved in. An attorney called me on a Saturday and said, “We have a case that is set for trial, and we never scheduled you to inspect the property.”

I said, that’s no problem, I’ll make it happen. His response was, “The trial starts Monday, and we don’t have you listed as an expert. I can send you over some documentation and see if you figure something out for us.”

I spent the remainder of the weekend looking through an extreme amount of paperwork and wrote them a novel of my findings.

The plaintiff had a plumber, general contractor and an engineer at the property and called them as witnesses in court.

The insurance company never had anyone out to the property and came to court only armed with my take on what I gathered from the work product that was supplied from the plaintiff’s experts. They were seeking $260,000 and the insurance company won the trial without having to pay anything.

I do see homes that have legitimate plumbing issues that should be paid by the insurance company. When I do, I advise them of the damages, the scope of work that is necessary to complete the work and an estimate to perform said work. I call them exactly as I see them. I won’t lie for anyone.

What sets us above other companies that may perform this type of work is, we will also do the work. If I say that the problem can be resolved by doing A, B and C and here’s the price. We will also do the work for them.

PHC News: Finally, how does your work investigating insurance fraud help you improve your own plumbing business?

Shell: It has provided a recession-proof department to my company. I believe that being designated as a plumbing expert witness most certainly adds to the credibility of my company.

My work in this role instills a sense of trust with current and future clients. They know that the plumbing company they have chosen is reliable enough and professional enough to be called upon by the legal community throughout the state of Florida. 

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