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Fla. Couple Awarded $6M For Insurance Breach Of Contract

By Doreen Hemlock, Sun Sentinel
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Feb. 13--A South Florida jury has awarded $6 million in damages to a Pompano Beach couple after finding their insurance company breached their contract and maliciously prosecuted them.

Debra and Ronald Peters said they lost their business, almost lost their home and Debra faced criminal charges and prison -- based on the actions of Sarasota-based FCCI Commercial Insurance Co.

FCCI said it is considering an appeal of the Feb. 6 verdict from a Broward Circuit Court jury.

"We've always focused on settling our claims fairly and ethically for our policyholders and claimants," said Cina Welch, a spokeswoman for the insurer founded in 1959 that operates in 17 states.

The Peters family said their saga began in 2005 when Hurricane Wilma damaged their business where they made high-end furniture and cabinets. The Peters sought relief through their insurance policy, but Debra instead ended up facing fraud charges and imprisoned, according to their lawyers.

"Imagine filing a legitimate insurance claim in an effort to save the 20-year-old business you built from the ground up only to find yourself charged with fraud, strip searched and thrown in jail," said Scott P. Schlesinger of Schlesinger Law Offices in Fort Lauderdale.

While the Peters had a paid policy in place, FCCI refused to fully pay the claim and filed what Schlesinger called "false and incomplete information" with the Florida Department of Insurance. Authorities brought insurance fraud charges against Debra, the lawyers said.

The State Attorney's Office in Broward eventually dropped its case against Debra Peters, but in testimony, the former business owner said the experience still haunts her.

"First two years, whenever I saw a sheriff's car, I thought they were going to come back and get me," Debra Peters testified.

The Peters borrowed money from friends to fix the hurricane-damaged building that housed their wood-working business but never could replace the equipment for their firm. They rented the space to another company, where Ronald now works as an employee.

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While Debra faced criminal charges, Ronald said he became "extremely depressed... You lose everything you work for.. You don't want to do anything. You want to sleep."

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dhemlock@tribune.com, 305-810-5009

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(c)2013 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

Visit the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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