Policyholders still struggling with storm claims

State trial lawyers launched a petition drive demanding insurers

be more accountable to their policyholders.

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald

Published  August 23, 2006

For many South Florida families, the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 aren't distant memories, but rather ongoing nightmares as they continue to battle with insurers over claims.

Geoff and Stacy Still have been living with their three children, including a three-month-old baby, at Geoff's parents' home since shortly after Wilma ripped through their Coral Springs house last October. The roof was a total loss, and the ensuing water damage and mold forced them to flee.

Repair work hasn't started because the couple has been haggling with their insurer, Universal Property & Casualty, over costs, which could total as much as $175,000 based on one estimate the couple received. One adjuster working for Universal told the couple all the damage to the house was cosmetic, the homeowners said.

State-supervised mediation wasn't successful, and the couple has hired an attorney to help resolve their claim.

''Insurance companies should be forced to play fair with people,'' said Geoff Still, as he held his sleeping baby on his shoulder after a news conference Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale where state trial lawyers launched a petition drive demanding insurers be more accountable to their policyholders.

''At some point the politicians are going to realize that they have to stop pandering to the corporate interests and start helping people,'' said Edward Zebersky, president of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, which is behind the petition. "The people have to keep reminding them who they represent.''

''It's about the balance of power between the businesses that have the money and the people,'' said Edith Beverly, an Arcadia resident whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Charley in 2004. She lived in a FEMA trailer for 13 months, and her claim is in litigation.


Richard Benrubi, a Boca Raton attorney and head of the Florida attorneys' insurance committee, said insurers should be required to better justify their rate increases.

He believes insurers should not be allowed to drop some forms of homeowners coverage but still write other profitable lines of insurance in Florida. ''They're in a risk-taking business, and they need to be writing'' all types of insurance.

The insurance industry sees it differently.

''The No. 1 priority of insurers, especially after catastrophic events like Katrina, is to take care of our policyholders and help them rebuild their lives,'' said Sam Miller in a joint statement from the Florida Insurance Council, American Insurance Association, Property Casualty Insurers of America and National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies. "The property-casualty insurance industry has great empathy for all victims of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricanes Rita and Wilma.''

Attorneys and insurers usually take opposing sides when it comes to claims settlement. Trial lawyers would like to see no restrictions on policyholders rights as well as fast and ample claims payments. Insurers are all about limiting their risks and subsequently limiting coverages and payments.


Indeed, insurers were faced with a mountain of claims after the storms of the past two years.

In Florida, the 2005 storms resulted in nearly 1.2 million claims, and insurers paid out $9.9 billion. The losses from the 2004 storms were greater: 1.6 million claims and $23.5 billion in claims paid.

But not all claims are resolved successfully, as home and condo owners pointed out Tuesday.

According to data collected by the Department of Financial Services, there are still 337 claims that were referred to state-supervised mediation but couldn't be resolved. Out of 5,150 cases referred, 2,842 were settled or partially settled.

From the 2004 storms, 10,527 claims were settled or partially settled through mediation; 943 cases couldn't be resolved. A total of 12,905 homeowners sought mediation, which is supervised by state insurance regulators, but the results aren't binding.

Residents at a small Fort Lauderdale condo had to hire a public adjuster to satisfy QBE Insurance's request to fully document the damage caused by Katrina last August. Yet, no one from the insurance company has bothered to pick up the documents or discuss the building's claims with the condo association.

''We couldn't get anyone from the insurance company to come to the table. That's why we had to get an attorney,'' said James Ofstein, board president of the Embassy Condominium Apartment Association.

He's particularly miffed since the building has not filed an insurance claim in the past 25 years. QBE has been insuring the building for the past eight years.

While the attorneys are demanding that insurers put the needs of their policyholders in front of their bottom lines, they also call for legislators to take a more active role in finding solutions for the state's insurance crisis.

State Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Tamarac, who is running for state attorney general and is a trial lawyer, said sentiment is beginning to sway in Tallahassee, and it's likely Gov. Jeb Bush could call for a special legislative session after the primaries next month to deal with insurance.