Lawsuit: Insurance company denied legitimate Hurricane Irma claims
NBC - 8 WFLA (Tampa, FL)
TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) -- Five years ago, Hurricane Irma ravaged parts of the Tampa Bay area. Now a lawsuit alleges, in the aftermath of the storm, one insurer denied legitimate claims, leaving Florida homeowners high and dry.
The lawsuit claims the property insurer, United Property & Casualty Insurance Company (United P&C), was engaged in racketeering. United P&C is one of the largest property insurance companies in the state.
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According to the civil lawsuit that was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, United P&C allegedly underpaid or flat-out denied at least 200 legitimate claims in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. General contractor, SFR services, brought the lawsuit against United P&C in January, accusing the insurer of committing multiple acts of fraud.
"Being a former prosecutor, my job is to collect evidence," homeowners insurance attorney John Tolley, Esq. said.
Tolley says he represents impacted homeowners, and evidence he collected was used to bring the lawsuit.
"UPC was telling their adjusters, no matter what, they were going to deny all of the claims, regardless of it was a valid claim or not," said Tolley.
"What are you basing this on?" 8 On Your Side Investigator Mahsa Saeidi asked. He responded, "We've collected emails, text messages, voicemails."
Tolley calls one text message the smoking gun in the case. It was allegedly sent by a co-conspirator of the insurance company.
In the text, an adjusting firm manager appears to instruct field crews to say they "cannot determine cause of loss" on late-reported Irma claims.
"They don't want us to put this in an email," the alleged text read, in part. The text message, which is mentioned in the lawsuit, goes on to state, "they no longer want you to turn in any estimate whatsoever for any damages they are going to be doing denials on all of them."
In a statement, an attorney for United P&C says the lawsuit lacks merit.
"UPC has no comment at this time beyond the fact that it denies the allegations," attorney Michael Monteverde, Esq. said.
Meanwhile, United P&C asked regulators last month to approve its plan to withdraw from multiple states, including Florida.
"Now they've completely bailed out of Florida claiming reinsurance is the issue," said Tolley.
Tolley is calling out Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.
"He's created all these taskforces to go after roofers and contractors but at no time do they ever go after insurance companies," said Tolley. "They get to walk away from the state of Florida - no harm, no foul."
Patronis' office responded in a statement, saying the CFO goes after fraud wherever he finds it.
"Protecting Florida policyholders is our number one goal. Whether dealing with roofers, contractors, or insurers, the Division of Investigative & Forensic Services will go after bad actors if there is a credible complaint to act on. The Department takes fraud seriously and encourages the public to contact the Insurance Fraud Tip Line at 1-800-378-0445.
Additionally, let's not forget that insurance companies have been exiting Florida's market due to the challenging legal environment. For example, Mr. Tolley alone has served lawsuits on insurance companies 135 times over the last two years, and those costs are passed down to policyholders through premium hikes. The CFO believes that, while there are good actors, there are also bad insurers, bad contractors, and bad attorneys who make a mess of the system."
Devin Galetta, Communications Director
United P&C has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.