Jury finds for condo owners in 1st local suit against Citizens

Oct 17, 2008

Daytona News-Journal--October 17, 2008

Staff writer

DAYTONA BEACH — A jury found Thursday that state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. should pay an additional $950,000 to owners of a condominium in Daytona Beach Shores for damages sustained during Hurricane Frances in 2004.

Owners of the 10-story, 64-unit oceanfront Sunglow Resort Condominium had sought more than $5 million for what they said were damages caused by water and winds in the second named storm of that now infamous season to hit here. The condo owners accused Citizens of breaching their contract by paying some but not all of their claims.

Sunglow v. Citizens is the first of nine similar cases against the state-run insurer in Volusia County to go to trial. The insurer of high-risk properties, mostly near the coast, still has hundreds of unsettled hurricane-damage claims across the state.

First, the jury asked for a calculator. Then, after deliberating for three hours, the jury of four men and two women found that Citizens was at least partly responsible for the damages. The award was given over the $369,135 Citizens already paid out for damage to 33 units.

"We’re confident Citizens did the right thing with these people all along," Michael Doyle, an attorney for Citizens, said after the verdict was read. "What was being asked for was basically a brand-new building.

"At the end of the day, (the jury) felt some of it was covered. We obviously disagree. That’s why we have a jury system."

The legal argument in Circuit Judge William Parsons’ courtroom was straightforward, while the evidence was laid out in tedious detail. For two weeks, jurors were shown hundreds of photographs of the beachfront building and pages and pages of insurance documents.

"Wind, holes, damages," Mike Duffy, an attorney for the condominium owners, said Thursday, showing pictures of the building after the storm. "Covered, covered, covered, not paid."

Citizens attorney Doyle, however, countered that the condominium owners wanted more than their policy called for. He stressed that Citizens was not responsible for damage caused by a lack of maintenance.

"You don’t get a pass for not taking care of your windows and doors for 18 years," he said. "That’s why water got into these units."

The defense team for Citizens showed models of windows and buildings to illustrate that 125 mph hour winds were "not enough" to cause the damages from the storm. While Duffy called the models "parlor games," Doyle compared those tests to weather data from the storm. His research showed wind gusts in Daytona Beach of 74 to 80 mph during the storm here Sept. 5, 2004.

"The winds were not enough to cause what they want to say is hurricane damage," Doyle argued. "You shouldn’t give them over a million dollars. It’s wrong."

Citizens came under heavy criticism for having too few claims adjusters to handle the 2004 storms. Although it beefed up staffing for the 2005 hurricane season, some legislators found further improvements were needed. Last year, the Legislature set up a task force to review claims handling by Citizens.

Doyle said he had no comment on how the verdict might affect the other eight cases against Citizens in Volusia. Andrew Plunkett, who is part of the team of attorneys taking on Citizens in 30 cases across the state, said they were "thrilled and vindicated" with the verdict.

Of the seven other cases against Citizens he is working on here, Plunkett said there was one theme.

"Every client has their own story to tell," he said. "And we’ll be happy to tell all of them."

Condo Lawsuits

In addition to Sunglow, eight other condominiums in Volusia County have sued Citizens Property Insurance Corp. seeking additional money from 2004 hurricane claims:· Inlet Condominium, New Smyrna Beach

· White Surf Condominium, Daytona Beach Shores

· Oceanquest Condominium, Daytona Beach Shores

· Harbour Beach Resort Condominium, Daytona Beach

· Ashley Condominium, Daytona Beach Shores

· Daytona Beach Club Condominium, Daytona Beach

· Oceans Atrium, Daytona Beach Shores

· Oceans Atrium One, Daytona Beach Shores

SOURCE: News-Journal research