The week beginning September 23, 2013 saw yet another sinkhole trial against Citizens Property Insurance Company get underway. In this case, Citizens’ policyholder, Evelio Campos, noticed damage to his home in Novemeber 2009. After he made his claim for potential sinkhole activity to Citizens, they denied his claim, contending that his loss was excluded under the policy. Citizens, as is their practice, resolutely refused to make any settlement offers and, then, bullied Mr. Campos, by threatening to bankrupt him with their fees and costs after Citizens used its vast resources to crush him at trial.
After coming out a federal jury trial in the Southern District of Florida, and on just a few days notice, firm lawyer, Michael Laurato, agreed to be lead trial counsel on Mr. Campos’ case against Citizens. The trial lasted 5, hard fought days, with Citizens raising many legal hurdles and maintaining, throughout the case, that it should win the case, as a matter of law. Factually, Citizens confidently rested its defenses on three primary issues: first, Citizens asserted that the Campos residence sustained very little damage and, since the home was built in 1971, the minor damage was consistent with the age of the home as opposed to sinkhole activity; second, Citizens asserted that its testing–the only testing done during the policy period–ruled out sinkhole activity; and third, and most importantly, Citizens asserted that the neutral evaluator, who had ruled out sinkhole acitivty, was the most credible expert to be relied upon by the jury. During the trial, Citizens was successful in admitting not only the neutral evaluator’s report, but also his testimony. The admission of this neutral evaluator evidence emboldened Citizens to maintain its denial of Mr. Campos’ claim. But, finally, on Friday September 27, 2013, Michael Laurato presented the closing arguments to the jury. After deliberations, the jury rejected all of Citizens’ contentions–including those of the neutral evaluator–and returned a verdict in favor of Mr. Campos, which will allow him to have his home repaired and the sinkhole remediated. The saga will probably continue for Mr. Campos, as Citizens likely will appeal the jury’s verdict. Citizens’ paid appellate lawyer was present during the trial and actually made several of the trial level arguments, in anticipation for an appeal.
Because of Citizens’ bad faith business practice of preferring to pay its lawyers to defend suits instead of reasonably settling insured’s claims, sinkhole trials have lined up in virtually every county in the sinkhole corridor–that is, counties that are prone to development of sinkhole activity. And no Florida lawyer has been more active in taking Citizens to trial on denied sinkhole claims since Citizens instituted its questionable business strategy, than firm lawyer, Michael Laurato, who is committed to holding Citizens accountable to its policyholders. When reached after the jury’s verdict, Michael Laurato said: “I am unclear of what Citizens is trying to accomplish. I don’t know what type of game they believe this is–it is not a game and money doesn’t buy justice in our system. This claim could have and should have been settled. It wasn’t simply because Citizens has instituted an across the board policy to force these poor folks to trial. But, in my view, that isn’t the right approach for each individual policyholder or the people of the state as a whole. I have personally spoken to Citizens’ representatives involved in individual claims and pleaded with them to be reasonable. They have responded bluntly and bald-facedly that they prefer to pay lawyers–no matter what the cost–to discourage others from making similar claims. It’s an unjustifiable and financially irresponsible approach, in my view–yet, I’m only one and Citizens’ business practice is not up to me. Until they stop the insanity, I’ll continue to have Citizens explain this conduct to jurors. Sadly, its the only choice my folks have–take nothing on a worthless insurance policy or face a trial. I’m just glad it worked out for Mr. Campos and I thank the jury for their attention.”