Hillsborough County Juries Find Citizens and Florida Peninsula Liable in Two Separate Denied Sinkhole Cases

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Migdalia Cabrera and Pedro Garcia, married 35 years, fought an uphill battle against government-run Citizens Property Insurance Corporation to recover the cost of repairing extensive sinkhole damage to their home. A jury verdict in excess of $160,000 on April 10, 2014 marked a long awaited victory.

For more than three and a half years, Ms. Cabrera and Mr. Garcia endured Citizens’ usual business practice of either denying or refusing to adequately pay a policyholder’s sinkhole claim. Citizens regularly engages in unilaterally assigning engineering firms retained on multi-million dollar contracts with the government insurer to investigate sinkhole activity at residential properties. After denying the existence of sinkhole activity or damage at Ms. Cabrera and Mr. Garcia’s property, the couple retained their own engineer to verify Citizens’ expert’s findings. Despite being furnished with that report, which detailed conclusive evidence of sinkhole activity resulting in damage to the property, Citizens stood by its denial and refused to settle the case. Determined to hold Citizens to its end of the bargain, Ms. Cabrera and Mr. Garcia pressed on; however, on the eve of trial, Citizens sought an automatic stay pending neutral evaluation of the claim. Ms. Cabrera and Mr. Garcia remained persistent, but again saw Citizens delay trial nearly six months later by substituting its expert witnesses and counsel just before the trial.

Now more than three years into litigation, Ms. Cabrera and Mr. Garcia had little choice but to hope that their case would eventually reach a jury. Finally, after a four day trial, Plaintiffs’ and Defense Counsel delivered their closing arguments. Despite lengthy delays, threats of attorneys’ fees and costs, and no offers for settlement, Ms. Cabrera and Mr. Garcia were awarded the full cost of their claim. Although Citizens has sought a post-judgment order to deprive Ms. Cabrera and Mr. Garcia from receiving their monetary judgment, which would in effect alter well-established and basic principles of contract law, the couple remains confident that the jury’s verdict will stand, allowing them to move on with their lives.

In yet another denied sinkhole claim rejected by a Hillsborough County jury, Pedro Hidalgo, a local tailor in Ybor City, was awarded the full cost of his claim to repair extensive sinkhole damage to his home. Like Ms. Cabrera and Mr. Garcia, Mr. Hidalgo fought with his insurer, Florida Peninsula Insurance Company, for over three years. Mr. Hidalgo’s home was built in 1949, but after Florida Peninsula retained Rimkus Consulting Group, another engineering firm with deep ties to the insurance industry, Mr. Hidalgo’s claim was denied. Specifically, Mr. Hidalgo was told that the damage to his home was consistent with “thermal expansion and contraction,” “differential settlement of soil,” and “wear and tear” due to the age of the home, despite obvious geological data to the contrary. Even Sandy Nettles, local Professional Geologist who testified on behalf of Mr. Hidalgo, noted to the jury that the causes of damage asserted by Florida Peninsula were implausible given how recent the damage became visible. After delivering closing arguments, the jury deliberated for just sixteen minutes before announcing its verdict in favor of Mr. Hidalgo. Although Florida Peninsula still may appeal the verdict, for now, Mr. Hidalgo has some peace of mind knowing the Hillsborough County community stands in his corner in opposition to Florida Peninsula’s bad-faith sinkhole defense strategies.

Both cases were tried by firm lawyer, Michael Laurato.