The state’s largest private property insurer, Universal Property & Casualty
Insurance Co. of Fort Lauderdale, has canceled policies instead of paying claims
in a growing number of cases, leaving consumers stunned and financially
devastated after such events as fire or water damage that marred or destroyed
homes, The Post found. Universal’s parent company reported profits grew 50
percent to $30 million last year, even as the insurer refused claims and dumped
policies for matters consumers or agents said they did not know about, forgot or
considered trivial, such as a tax lien paid off years before in another state.
“This practice should not occur in this state,” said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart,
whose advocacy helped turn a measure withdrawn in committee to a unanimous voice
vote in support on the Senate floor.
Universal is Florida’s biggest insurer after state-run Citizens with more than
550,000 customers in Florida, and has more in Palm Beach (66,373) than any other
county. A company spokesman had no immediate comment Friday, but Universal
officials have defended the practice and said it was up to the customer to
provide correct information on applications.
Former customer Michael Wyman, forced to pay out of pocket for more than $10,000
in water damage in Delray Beach, told The Post the company’s behavior is
“horrible.” A Gainesville special-ed teacher said she lost the use of her home
to fire but the company won’t pay.
Negron co-sponsored an amendment to HB 635, which comes up for a final vote in
the Senate as early as Monday.
On the Senate floor Friday, Negron said a whistleblower who formerly worked at
an unidentified company told the state’s insurance consumer advocate he was
directed to find any reason in a consumer’s records to deny claims above a
Robin Westcott, the state’s insurance consumer advocate, said checking records
at sign-up is appropriate but using it to deny claims is “reprehensible.” She
asked state regulators to investigate in October and has worked to get the
measure included in legislation.
In a Senate committee last week, Universal lobbyist Steve Roddenberry said
checking applications isn’t always a simple process, arguing the amendment had
not been widely vetted and should have more time for consideration. Another
industry lobbyist, Tim Meenan representing Nationwide Insurance, suggested if
the practice is associated with one company rather than others, regulators
should investigate that firm without necessarily requiring new law.
Westcott argued allowing the practice to go unchallenged could send a go-ahead
signal to others.
At the time, Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, agreed to withdraw the amendment out
of concern it could slow down a bill that deals with what types of insurance
companies must contribute to the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund. At that
meeting, Negron questioned the need for the withdrawal and said it only takes
five minutes to run a credit report, for example.
But waiting to check when a claim is filed could enrich a company at the
customer’s expense, he said.
“It’s nice to have in your hip pocket,” Negron said, “if you don’t want to pay a
What It Says
The amendment to HB 635 passed Friday by the Senate says “an insurer that uses a
credit report, public record or other public information to determine whether
there is a misstatement or omission in the application for insurance related to
the insured’s credit history must make such determination within 90 days after
the effective date of the policy. After such 90 day period, an insurer may not
cancel or rescind the policy or deny coverage for a claim based on a
misstatement or omission in the application regarding the insured’s credit
history which the insurer could have reasonably discovered by a review of the
insured’s credit report, public records, or other public information.”
In March, The Palm Beach Post featured a front page report on Universal with
interviews of customers, adjusters and others who said their claims were denied
and policies canceled because of “horrible” company practices.