Posted on Sat,
Jul. 14, 2007
lead to legal action
BY BEATRICE E. GARCIA
The hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 should
be a distant memory for South Florida,
but some residents are still living
under blue roof tarps and contending
with leaks, mold and unfinished repairs.
There are several
thousand homeowners who have open claims
-- and lingering damage -- because they
say they haven't collected enough money
from their insurers.
''For a lot of
people, there seems to be no end in
sight,'' says Michael Virkaitis, who is
helping his in-laws in Coral Springs
settle their claim with the Florida
Insurance Guaranty Association, which
handles claims for defunct insurers.
Joy and Frank
Vernoia were insured by one of the Poe
Financial Group companies, which were
taken over by state regulators last
June. Their roof was damaged during
Hurricane Wilma in October 2005, and
there's water damage in every room
except the bathroom.
Virkaitis and the
couple's attorney, Paul Berger of Boca
Raton, are miffed that FIGA is willing
to pay about $8,000 to repair the
internal damage but refuses to pay to
replace the roof, roughly a $30,000 job.
A blue tarp covers the Vernoia's roof.
Michelle Lovern, deputy director of the
guaranty association, FIGA ''has settled
the vast majority of claims''
transferred to the agency after the Poe
companies -- Atlantic Preferred, Florida
Preferred and Southern Family -- were
seized by state regulators a year ago.
FIGA has settled
40,786 claims from the Poe companies,
paying out some $811 million. But there
are about 2,700 Poe-related claims still
After Wilma's romp
through South Florida in late October
2005, roofs have become a big point of
contention between homeowners and their
percent'' of the problems with open
claims revolve around roofs, says
Berger, who says he has been seeing
three to five new clients each week for
the past six to nine months.
refuse to pay for a new roof even though
four or five contractors have told the
homeowners that they need to replace the
entire roof,'' he says.
And there's a
complicating factor: The Florida
Building Code requires that an entire
roof be replaced if 25 percent or more
of it has been damaged.
That's the bind
that Howard Friedman of Hollywood is in.
His insurer, The Hartford, won't accept
the roof damage and subsequent water
damage inside his house. An engineer
sent by the insurer said the roof was
damaged because it was more than 40
years old, and the storm's relatively
weak winds of about 34 mph couldn't have
caused the damage.
wasn't the best reason to deny a claim
from Friedman, who is the deputy
director for hurricane research at the
National Oceanic & Atmospheric
Administration outpost in Miami.
''I have access to
all sorts of data to show that winds
were in excess of 34 mph at my house
when the storm came through,'' says
Friedman, who also says his roof was
replaced about 14 years ago. He has
found a roofer who is willing to take a
down payment to begin the repair work
and wait for the insurer to resolve the
claim for this final payment.
State Farm, says
spokesman Chris Neal, has had problems
determining how damage was caused as it
worked to settle Wilma claims. For
instance, adjusters had a hard time
determining if damage to roof tiles
existed before the storm or if it was
caused by the high winds.
State Farm now has
just under 900 claims open, though
claims can be reopened by policyholders
at any time, says Neal.
The company, the
largest private insurer of homes and
autos in Florida, says it handled
100,000 claims from Wilma and a total of
300,000 claims from the four storms of
2004. Neal adds that it's State Farm's
goal is to settle claims as quickly as
problem was homeowners often received
settlement offers that didn't cover the
actual costs of repairs because insurers
weren't taking into account the rapid
rise in the cost of labor and materials
that often occurs after a storm. But now
insurers have updated prices used in the
software that calculates the costs,
insurers and adjusters say.
Lawyers say many
of the still-unresolved claims are the
larger, more complex cases. ''As the
size of the damages goes up, the ability
to settle quickly goes down,'' says
However, at a
recent meeting of a state task force
studying how Citizens Property Insurance
was handling claims, many homeowners
complained of still dealing with poorly
trained adjusters after the 2004 and
2005 storms. Some have dealt with
multiple adjusters, each one coming up
with a different assessment of the
extent of damage and cost of repairs.
largest insurer of homes in the state
with more than 600,000 policies in South
Florida, has 700 open claims from the
2004 storms and some 2,630 claims from
the 2005 hurricanes. Of those, 789 are
The task force
recommended Citizens ''take
extraordinary action'' to close as many
claims as possible by Sept. 30.
On a positive
note, Mark Pritchett, executive vice
president of the Collins Center, which
is handling the mediation process for
the state, says that in the past month
Citizens has been settling most of its
claims in mediation -- an about-face
from the prior 11 months, when many of
its cases ended in an impasse.
an attorney with Liggio, Benrubi &
Williams in Boca Raton, says he files a
lawsuit on just about every case he
handles from homeowners who have had
claims denied or insufficient
settlements. But only once has he had to
go to trial on a hurricane-related suit.
Benrubi says most
lawsuits are settled out of court
through mediation or appraisal, a
court-supervised process where an
appraiser for the homeowner and one for
the insurance company hash out the
isn't surprised many insurance companies
drag out claims settlements, he is
'surprised homeowners wait so long. They
get to their wits' end and then seek