In a attack mailer beatific aftermost anniversary to voters in Florida House Commune 114, Andrew Vargas focused alone on acreage allowance and homeowner’s, and said that “the amount of homeowner’s allowance added every year and allowance companies added to their basal line.” | POLITICO/Daniel Ducassi
TALLAHASSEE — Florida House applicant Andrew Vargas is advancement to stop “abuse and barmy lawsuits that advance to amount increases” from insurers, but accompaniment annal appearance his South Florida law close is a baton in a cottage industry of balloon attorneys abhorrent by experts for college homeowner premiums.
Vargas’ law close has been the top litigator adjoin Citizens Acreage Allowance Corp. for a almost new and arguable blazon of accusation affiliated to “Assignment of Benefits” arrangement cases, filing 644 of them from 2014 until 2018, according to abstracts from Citizens, the state-run insurer of aftermost resort and second-largest homeowner insurer in Florida. In that time period, Citizens has dedicated 10,091 of the AOB cases.
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Vargas alone active the complaints in at atomic 298 of his firm’s AOB apparel adjoin Citizens, in which barter duke over the rights to their allowance allowances to a architect who does aliment on a damaged property.
The AOB cases can advance to college ante because they accord contractors an added allurement to accomplish costlier-than-needed aliment that can be too arduous for insurers to action in court, thereby inflating costs, according to allowance companies and the state’s allowance commissioner. Critics say it’s riddled with artifice and abuse.
But Vargas said the allowance companies aren’t cogent the accuracy about rates, which kept activity college and college for many, behindhand of the AOB issue.
“Even afore this AOB blazon of litigation, which started up in 2013 or 2014, those ante were continuously activity up. Ante were activity up every distinct year,” Vargas told POLITICO in an interview.
But Vargas’ appraisal conflicts with a 2015 amount address from Citizens that states it was able to lower ante that year “for about 70 percent of its policyholders.” AOB lawsuits ailing a year later, aback Citizens began consistently adopting ante in South Florida.
Citizens says the lawsuits themselves — which are added accustomed in South Florida than in added regions of the accompaniment — have, in ample part, led to the college rates. The close says that one of its archetypal homeowner multi-peril allowance behavior in Miami-Dade County added by 26 percent from 2015 to 2018. The aforementioned action in Orlando went bottomward by 22 percent over the aforementioned period.
More than bisected of Citizens’ 440,000 barter are in South Florida, with best behavior concentrated in Miami-Dade, breadth Vargas, a Republican, is active adjoin Democratic lobbyist Javier Fernandez and absolute Liz de las Cuevas, a above Republican. The acclamation is Tuesday.
In the deathwatch of Blow Irma, aback abounding struggled in the commune and South Florida with home accident and the altercation of ambidextrous with allowance companies, acreage allowance has become a above pocketbook issue.
Efforts to ameliorate the AOB altercation accept bootless for at atomic bristles years in a row in the GOP-led Legislature. Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran said that reforms his alcove proposed would “put a stop to the aggressive affix and bribery demography abode in Appointment of Allowances … save association hundreds of millions of dollars in the connected run and put a stop to a cesspool of fraud.”
If elected, Vargas said, he has a simple hypothesis for allowance companies: “If the allowance companies can accomplish a charge to our accompaniment Legislature and say, ‘Let’s appear to the table and ameliorate Appointment of Benefits,’ and the allowance companies accede to lower rates, I will be allotment of that solution. … I’m not activity to sit here, win this acclamation and abandonment any efforts to lower allowance ante for Florida residents.”
Vargas shares his angle with his above law accomplice — above Florida House annual administrator Carlos Trujillo, who is now U.S. agent to the Organization of American States — and with abounding South Florida accompaniment senators who accept been at an impasse on AOB ameliorate with the allowance industry for years. Lobbyists for allowance companies frequently blaze aback that the industry can’t agreement amount reductions but add that the action creates an abrupt amount that should accompany ante bottomward were it to go away.
In accession to antagonistic with the industry, Vargas additionally acknowledged Citizens’ numbers assuming that his Coral Gables-based firm, Vargas Gonzalez Hevia Baldwin, led the accompaniment in AOB lawsuits adjoin it. “It aloof can’t be. Their cardinal is wrong,” he said, clumsy to say what rank his close is. “They’ve been amiss afore about these numbers.”
Vargas didn’t altercation the absolute cardinal of AOB lawsuits filed by his close adjoin Citizens, 644, or of the statewide absolute it filed adjoin all insurers in the cases — at atomic 1,586 — aback 2013. Vargas alone active the complaints in at atomic 855 of them, according to a POLITICO assay of Department of Banking Services data. Statewide, the close is not an industry baton in these types of lawsuits, which can additionally accommodate auto as able-bodied as homeowner’s insurance.
The abstracts appearance the apparel annual for about a third of the firm’s allowance cases; Vargas said they annual for beneath than 15 percent of its absolute revenue.
Though he active the apparel in question, Vargas said, he isn’t aggravating the AOB cases himself any longer. Instead, he said, he represents homeowners; AOB apparel are on account of the contractors.
In a attack mailer beatific aftermost anniversary to voters in Florida House Commune 114, Vargas focused alone on acreage allowance and homeowner’s, and said that “the amount of homeowner’s allowance added every year and allowance companies added to their basal line.”
If elected, the mailer said, Vargas would appointment adjoin “eliminating fraud, abuse, and barmy lawsuits that advance to amount increases.” He additionally questioned how insurers corruption to absolve adopting ante while lavishing big paydays on executives.
In all, aback 2013, Vargas’ close has filed at atomic 4,806 insurance-related lawsuits and Vargas alone active bisected of those apparel — at atomic 2,478 — POLITICO’s assay found.
Vargas told POLITICO that he’s not filing barmy apparel on account of homeowners.
“It’s not that if you book a lawsuit, you’re activity to automatically get all these attorney’s fees. No. That’s not how it works,” he said. “You absolutely accept to accept a applicable lawsuit.”
But angry an AOB case in Florida can be catchy for insurers in allotment because of what are alleged “one-way” advocate fees. If a architect and an allowance aggregation go to cloister over a affirmation dispute, and the allowance company’s appraisal is off by alike $1, afresh the allowance aggregation is amenable for advantageous the advocate fees on both sides.
In concert with one-way fees for lawyers, AOB cases become catchy because the architect becomes the plaintiff, and, experts say, that creates an added banking allurement to accomplish added big-ticket appointment and to action harder for the estimated accident — which can be awful abstract and alter from architect to contractor.
Water-related claims — such as adulterated or burst pipes that aren’t acquired by called storms — are generally litigated application the AOB law and can be decidedly accomplished for artifice and bribery because they are adamantine to estimate. The boilerplate amount for litigated baptize claims is added than bifold that of non-litigated baptize claims, according to a 2016 appropriate address on the matter. And the boilerplate amount for non-litigated baptize claims with AOB is added than bifold that for non-litigated baptize claims after AOB.
Vargas’ close accounts for the third-highest cardinal of water-related apparel adjoin Citizens, 1,202, abaft the Strems Law Close and Morgan Law Group, in the accomplished four years. In all during that period, 26,871 water-related claims accept been filed adjoin Citizens, the insurer says.
“Many of the amount increases in South Florida are apprenticed by the AOB/water action issue,” said Christine Ashburn, who is Citizens’ arch of communications, aldermanic and alien affairs, in an interview. “The absoluteness is, we accept apparent and consistently said that if AOB were to be anchored and baptize trends were to go aback above-mentioned to this crisis, abounding of our barter who are seeing amount increases would be seeing abiding ante and, in abounding cases, amount decreases.”
Ashburn added that while all the AOB lawsuits are filed on account of contractors, some of the baptize claims are filed by association themselves. Citizens has backed legislation to accomplish bright that one-way advocate fees would administer carefully to homeowners — not contractors. The legislation has never passed.
In 2015, Citizens decreased its ante for about 70 percent of policyholders. But as the action ticked up, peaking in 2016, it said it was affected to alpha adopting ante in areas with aggressive suits, decidedly South Florida.
“I anticipate that the basis of the botheration there is that the appointment of allowances apparatus is actuality taken advantage of by a baby cardinal of bazaar participants,” Florida Allowance Abettor David Altmaier said about accretion baptize claims during a Cabinet affair in 2016.
That year, Citizens and the Office of Allowance Regulation began abetment legislation to abolish the “one-way” advocate fee account for contractors, blaming the added litigation, in part, for amount increases.
In 2016, Florida didn’t accept any austere hurricanes, but Citizens had to tap into its blow surplus funds to pay “nonweather baptize claims losses.”
At a Florida Cabinet affair a year later, Altmaier said the one-way advocate fees accord contractors and attorneys an allurement to aerate claims and sue for settlement. He abhorrent the added action for active accretion premiums, which by law are capped at 10 percent per year.
“Water losses are activity up, both in agreement of abundance and severity,” said Altmaier at a 2017 Cabinet meeting. “Were these trends to abide unchecked, policyholders would see about 10 percent increases every year activity advanced aloof to accumulate up with baptize trends that are accoutrement their policy.”
By 2017, ante added statewide on boilerplate by 6.7 percent. In Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, they added on boilerplate by 8.3 percent.
In 2018, ante afresh added by 6.7 percent statewide on average. But in South Florida, they connected to ascend with an boilerplate access of added than 10 percent beyond the tri-county area.
“Miami-Dade homeowners’ policyholders could see boilerplate premiums ascend from $3,400 to $4,500 in aloof four years,” states a aggregation 2018 report. “Instances of AOB bribery are on the rise, decidedly in South Florida, and are one of the above factors active added nonweather baptize losses and Citizens’ access amount need.”
That aforementioned address declared that policyholders in added genitalia of the accompaniment “who were accepted to see amount decreases in 2018, additionally may be subjected to college ante based on college baptize claims and added AOB-related litigation.” Citizens said that’s because the AOB-litigation trend is alpha to advance to added genitalia of the state.
Vargas said some allowance companies additionally accept ambiguous relationships with contractors that low-ball association and acicular out that “one of the alone coverages larboard for association larboard in the accompaniment of Florida is baptize damage.” And abounding allowance companies action to balance people.
“My focus and my activity is on the homeowner side,” Vargas said. “Win or lose — and God accommodating I win — I’m activity to go aback to apery homeowners with allowance disputes.”
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