Citizens Insurance task force gets an earful about claims

Frustrated homeowners complained of poorly trained adjusters and drawn-out negotiations

as they've worked to settle still-unresolved storm claims from 2004 and 2005.

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald

Published June 20, 2007

A task force examining how Citizens Property Insurance is handling unresolved claims from the 2004 and 2005 storms got an earful from frustrated policyholders with still-open claims and unrepaired homes.

Some policyholders like Catherine Craig have spent their savings on making partial repairs to their storm-damaged homes while haggling with adjusters from Citizens, the state-run insurance company.

Many have tried mediation with the hope of closing a claim, but ended up with no resolution. Many have hired public adjusters and attorneys to help them expedite their claims.

Yet, Craig, whose Jupiter home was damaged by Hurricane Jeanne in 2004 and then again by Wilma the following year, still cooks dinner for her three children in a kitchen with a makeshift sink and what should be a built-in oven propped on a counter.

''Citizens, shame on you. This is the game you're playing -- delay, delay, delay,'' said Craig as she addressed the task force which includes Tim Loftin, Citizens' vice president for claims.

Others like Paul Morales, whose mobile home was wiped out by Wilma, complained that Citizens lost documentation, including photos of his damaged house, that he sent in many times.

The overwhelming problem, based on the testimony provided by more than a dozen homeowners who came to Nova Southeastern University Tuesday afternoon, was poorly trained adjusters.

''Adjusters are uneducated and don't know what they are doing,'' said Lyn Thomason, a homeowner in Shady Banks who has dealt with six adjusters from Citizens so far.

Every time she has tried to reopen her claim, the company has told her it was closed.

''It's a waste of money how claims are handled,'' she added.

This task force -- which includes Bob Milligan, Florida's insurance consumer advocate, and was created by the insurance reform bill passed in January -- is holding several meetings around the state to hear from homeowners on how Citizens is working to resolve open claims from the eight storms that hit the state in a two-year period.

The task force is expected to begin drafting recommendations on how to speed up these negotiations in the next week.

Rep. Julio Robaina of Miami, another task force member, noted that problems with adjusters seemed to be ruining efforts to settle claims in mediation, which gets costly quickly as homeowners hire lawyers and file lawsuits instead.

Citizens told the task force that it has 3,510 unresolved storm claims.

But since homeowners are allowed to reopen a claim if they find further damage or if Citizens hasn't paid a sufficient amount to cover all repairs, the number of claims not fully resolved could be considerable, said Heather Carruthers, an advocate with FIRM (Fair Insurance Rates for Monroe) and a task force member.

Homeowners are frustrated ''because they can't get a straight answer when they contact Citizens,'' said Paul Berger, a Boca Raton attorney who has represented various Citizens policyholders and who filed a class-action lawsuit against the insurer.

Berger said he has seen cases where Citizens has been working with outdated price lists, so settlement offers from the insurer are well below current prices for building materials and labor.

Mark Pritchett, executive vice president for the Collins Center, which is handling mediation between insurers and homeowners, said he noticed a spike in the number of claims that Citizens was unable to resolve through this negotiation process since last June.

He said between 50 percent and 60 percent of Citizens claims were at an ''impasse'' after mediation. That was about double the impasse rate he has been seeing for other major home insurers still working on closing storm claims.

However, Pritchett, who tracks the progress and the results of the mediations for the Department of Financial Services, did note that since last week Citizens has become more successful on negotiating settlements on claims via mediation -- a service the state is providing homeowners at no cost.