Cit­i­zens of­fers to set­tle law­suits

Com­pany wants to ex­pe­dite open suits re­lated to Hur­ri­cane Irma.

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - Front Page - By Ron Hurt­ibise South Flor­ida Sun Sen­tinel

State-run Cit­i­zens Prop­erty In­surance Corp. wants to ex­pe­dite the set­tle­ment of about 6,500 open law­suits re­lated to Hur­ri­cane Irma.

On Wed­nes­day, the com­pany’s chief claims of­fi­cer, Jay Adams, said Cit­i­zens is of­fer­ing to pay to have ap­prais­ers re­view the dis­putes and forge res­o­lu­tions.

And if those ap­prais­ers can’t agree, Cit­i­zens also will pay for um­pires to make bind­ing de­ci­sions, Adams said.

Nor­mally, Cit­i­zens isn’t so gen­er­ous when it comes to pay­ing for dis­pute res­o­lu­tion.

Un­der cur­rent pol­icy lan­guage, ei­ther side in a claims dis­pute can re­quest ap­praisal be­fore en­ter­ing lit­i­ga­tion, but both par­ties have to pay for their own ap­prais­ers. They split the cost of an um­pire if nec­es­sary.

Adams told the com­pany’s Claims Com­mit­tee on Wed­nes­day that he hoped 50 per­cent of about 6,500 qual­i­fy­ing suits could be set­tled by the com­pany’s of­fer.

So far, just 60 plain­tiffs have agreed to ac­cept the of­fers, which Cit­i­zens started send­ing to plain­tiffs’ at­tor­neys in mid-Oc­to­ber, Cit­i­zens spokesman Michael Peltier said Wed­nes­day.

Hur­ri­cane Irma, which hit in Septem­ber 2017, spurred a 71 per­cent in­crease in law­suits against the com­pany from Jan­uary to Oc­to­ber 2018 com­pared to the same pe­riod the pre­vi­ous year. The num­ber of new suits each month in­creased from an av­er­age 650 to 1,114.

Of the 6,500 open Irma suits, 84 per­cent in­volved a dis­pute over how much money it would take to bring cov­ered prop­er­ties back to their pre-loss con­di­tions, Adams said.

The dis­pute isn’t over whether Cit­i­zens is re­spon­si­ble for cov­er­ing the loss. Rather, these are cases where the com­pany has al­ready made pay­ments later deemed in­ad­e­quate by the pol­i­cy­holder, or in which Cit­i­zens said dam­age costs did not ex­ceed the pol­i­cy­hold­ers’ hur­ri­cane de­ductibles and thus re­sulted in no pay­ment.

Just as a ma­jor­ity of law­suits be­fore Hur­ri­cane Irma were filed by Cit­i­zens’ South Flor­ida pol­i­cy­hold­ers, so were the Irma suits.

Eighty-nine per­cent of the 6,500 open Irma suits orig­i­nated from Broward and Mi­ami-Dade coun­ties, Cit­i­zens data shows.

The com­pany has long pointed to the three South Flor­ida coun­ties — home to 51 per­cent of Cit­i­zens pol­i­cy­hold­ers — as re­spon­si­ble for a dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of claims and law­suits.

Asked by the Claims Com­mit­tee chair­man whether he thought the com­pany would reach its 50 per­cent goal, Adams replied, “Based on the ac­tiv­ity we have seen so far, 50 per­cent seems high.”

The chair­man, Gary Aubu­chon, said, “that’s dis­heart­en­ing, don’t you think, when we’re try­ing to do the right thing?”

But two high-vol­ume plain­tiffs’ at­tor­neys, asked by the South Flor­ida Sun Sen­tinel about the of­fers, said tak­ing them wouldn’t be in their clients’ best in­ter­ests.

Joe Lig­man, of Lig­man Martin PL in Pal­metto Bay, said um­pires too of­ten want to split the dif­fer­ence. “So if they’re of­fer­ing $5,000, and we say it will take $100,000 to make the re­pair, we’d have to ac­cept half of that.” Lig­man said he rep­re­sents clients in 50 cases for which Cit­i­zens has made the of­fer, and he hasn’t rec­om­mended that any of them ac­cept it.

Im­ran Ma­lik, an Or­lando-based at­tor­ney who filed 77 suits against Cit­i­zens be­tween Jan­uary and Oc­to­ber, said Cit­i­zens should have avoided the need to pro­pose set­tle­ments by mak­ing fair of­fers be­fore dis­putes ended up in court.

“Is this an ac­knowl­edge­ment that Cit­i­zens has not prop­erly ad­justed claims in the first place? That’s a ques­tion that will be an­swered through the lit­i­ga­tion process.”

GETTY

Hur­ri­cane Irma tar­geted Flor­ida in Septem­ber 2017. The storm spurred a 71-per­cent in­crease in law­suits against state-run Cit­i­zens Prop­erty In­surance Corp. be­tween Jan­uary and Oc­to­ber 2018 com­pared to the same pe­riod a year ear­lier, the com­pany said.

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