Insurers, attorneys point fingers in Michael aftermath

Photo: The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Insurers and attorneys blamed each other Tuesday as about 17,000 insurance claims from Hurricane Michael remained unsettled just over a year after the deadly storm ravaged parts of the Panhandle.

Appearing before the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee, Locke Burt, a former senator who is president of Ormond Beach-based Security First Insurance, called for litigation reform because he said lawyers view the damages from Michael as a "gold rush" for themselves.

"An attorney can get an unlimited amount of money for suing a property insurance company in Florida," Burt said. "I would estimate that the plaintiffs' bar is going to make between $300 (million) and $400 million suing insurance companies as a result of Hurricane (Michael). That's about $40,000 in fees per case. The defense costs are going to be on top of that."

Burt, saying the industry in Florida is barely breaking even because of litigation, expects rates statewide to go up 20 to 30 percent next year, making it more difficult for property owners to get coverage and driving people to the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. or to the surplus lines market, which provides coverage for hard-to-insure properties.

Meanwhile, attorneys appearing Tuesday at the Senate committee said lawmakers need to put more teeth in a law that requires insurers to pay claims within 90 days, as currently the window is from when the insurer settles on how much is owed and the offer is accepted.

They also disputed Burt's "gold rush" claim.

"There is not just a cadre of policy holders just waiting to make a claim, to go sign with attorneys and unlimited attorney fees," attorney Chip Merlin said. "They don't want to hire me. But when they do, they want to make sure my fees are going to get paid for, to go beat these insurance companies."

Attorney Amy Boggs, of Boggs Law Group, said a bigger issue for homeowners confronting damage from Michael involves insurers disputing whether wind or flooding caused damages. She said that has resulted in homeowners being underpaid by $100,000 and more in many circumstances.

While insurers typically are responsible for covering wind damage, they might not have to pay if the damage can be pinned on flooding.

"We had a Category 5 wind event in Mexico Beach and Panama City, the wind carrier should be paying something," Boggs said.

Michael which made landfall in Mexico Beach on Oct. 10, 2018 had spurred 149,448 claims as of Sept. 27, most involving residential properties, according to the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation.

Of the claims, 132,201, or 88.4 percent, had been closed.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said policy holders aren't interested in the games between attorneys and insurers.

"People are frustrated. They want action," Rouson said. "They want suggestions that lead toward solutions. They want these claims settled and closed appropriately."

Rouson challenged Tasha Carter, Florida's insurance consumer advocate, to come up with legislation to help consumers.

Committee Chairman Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, noted former House Speaker Allan Bense has highlighted a problem facing Panama City property owners in which policyholders have been forced to deal with multiple adjusters. Bense is from Panama City and sustained property damage in the hurricane.

After the meeting, Broxson said "it's a complicated landscape" as insurers and consumers expressed being in trouble.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, warned that the insurance industry is on an "unsustainable trajectory" that is headed to a "wild west" marketplace.

"What's ultimately going to happen … is we're driving more and more consumers to an (excess and surplus lines) market where they don't understand what the products that they're purchasing are," Brandes said.