Nothing is more important to our firm than helping families by holding insurance companies accountable for the wrongful denial of homeowner policy claims. After all, in most cases, our client’s home has been damaged by sinkhole activity and the insurance company has refused to repair. If the case is won, then the client’s home is repaired and their significant investment is saved. If the case is lost, then, for all intents and purposes, the client’s home is also lost–unrepaired and essentially worthless.
Hector and Alba Munoz’ case was no different. Hector and Alba, who had been married for 24 years, noticed cracks to the exterior walls of their beautiful three bedroom Fishawk home, while they were hanging Christmas lights in December of 2009. Hector and Alba made a claim with Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, who had insured the home since the time it was purchased in 2007. Citizens inspected the home and denied the claim, saying that the damage to the home was caused by the lack of rain gutters, traffic vibration, thunder claps, construction defects, and normal settling–all of which it claimed was excluded under the policy. Citizens denied the claim, although it was well aware that its own sinkhole report revealed several red flags indicating that covered sinkhole activity was causing the damage.
More than ignoring the tell-tale signs of sinkhole activity, Citizens went further. Citizens revoked any settlement offers, refused to entertain any good faith settlement negotiations, and took all offers “off the table.” Then, Citizens, refused to offer Hector and Alba any settlement and forced the couple to trial, all while threatening to ruin them financially with a significant judgment for attorney’s fees and costs if Hector and Alba lost the case. This unreasonable, hard-ball approach is one that Citizens–an entity invested with a public interest–has choosen to employ not only against Hector and Alba, but against homeowners with similar claims statewide, because, in part, it is immune from Florida’s bad faith claim’s practices statute. Citizens hoped to use Hector and Alba’s case and trial to “teach” other homeowners and discourage others from making claims under policies.
Faced with this unfair, bully approach, Hector and Alba asked attorney Michael Laurato of the law firm of Austin & Laurato, P.A. to try their case against Citizens. By the time of trial, Citizens had become more even more emboldened in its strategy. It had added a new geological expert and was permitted to obtain a new, last minute test, just the week before trial. With its new expert and its last-minute test, Citizens was overly-confident going into the trial that its test would prove sinkhole activity was not a cause of damage to the property and that its experts were the best-qualified to establish that. As a result, Citizens refused all of Hector and Alba’s pleas for settlement during trial. Citizens counsel boasted that the best the Hector and Alba could hope for is to voluntarily dismiss the suit and, perhaps, Citizens would not pursue them for an attorney fee and cost judgment.
The week of January 28, 2013, Citizens got its day in court–the day it hoped would intimidate Hector and Alba into dismissing the claim. Because Citizens sought to use this case as a “test” case for its new hard-line strategy and Hector and Alba’s case was one of the first to be tried following implementation of the approach, the case was widely followed by both the insurance and policyholder’s bar. Attorney Michael Laurato, with assistance from firm attorney Erin Dunnavent and Robert Austin, tried the case to the Hillsborough County Jury. On January 30, 2013, the jury returned its verdict rejecting all of Citizens defenses and finding in favor of Hector and Alba. The jury awarded $200,000 to remediate the sinkhole and repair the home.
Following the verdict, Michael Laurato commented: “These kind people–Hector and Alba–had so much on the line. I’m just so pleased we were able to convince the jury to see passed Citizens’ arguments. We are so thankful to the jury for their verdict. Hector and Alba had sinkhole activity damaging their home and it is only right that it is repaired.”
Michael Laurato went on to note: “I just hope that this verdict does something to change the way Citizens approaches these claims. This is a case that could have, and should have, been settled. When insurance companies choose to intimidate and bully instead of entertain good faith settlement negotiations, nobody wins. The insurance companies expend more in legal expense that it would have cost to settle the case, plus they don’t avoid the risk associated with losing. The already overburdened courts and civil justice system are unnecessarily taxed by cases that could, and should, be resolved with little or no court intervention. And, the homeowners are unfairly threatened and faced with financial ruin simply because they seek the coverage they paid for under a policy.”
Michael Laurato concluded by stating: “Forcing good, kind people to trial is not only unfair, but–in my view– it doesn’t make good business sense, either. Something has to change, but that’s not for me to say. I don’t sit on the board of any insurance companies, and so, I don’t have a say in the way they choose to do business. What I can say is that Austin & Laurato, P.A. stands prepared–as our long track record has proven–to try any insurance case, anytime, anywhere in Florida, whenever an insurance company decides to unfairly deny a claim. The only way I know how to stop the unfairness, bullying, and intimidation is to have an insurance company explain their conduct to a jury. Again, I can only hope that this verdict plays some role in bringing common sense and fairness back into the process.”