Debra Peters is the hardworking co-owner of Custom Wood Creations, Inc, a Pompano Beach company that made high-end cabinets and furniture. The other co-owner is Debra’s husband, Ronald. The company suffered significant damage in 2005 due to Hurricane Wilma, but their insurance company, FCCI Commercial Insurance Co, refused to pay what they owed the couple, despite the fact that the Peters’ policy was up to date and paid in full. Florida insurance attorneys see this kind of scenario all the time, unfortunately. But what happened next brought Debra Peters’ case from the unfortunate and unfair to the horrific and nightmarish.
According to news reports, the insurance company not only refused to pay the claim, but the company instead accused Debra of insurance fraud. FCCI filed false and incomplete information on her to the Florida Department of Insurance, which resulted in criminal charges against Debra. She was arrested and spent 16 hours in jail. The criminal case was eventually thrown out for lack of evidence, but not before she and her family suffered from the emotional strain of the experience. And due to FCCI’s refusal to pay the claim for the hurricane damage, Ronald and Debra had to borrow money from friends to fix their building. In addition, they could not gather enough money to fix their equipment, so they ended up having to lease the space to another company, where Ronald now works.
This week, the Peters got some vindication when a Broward County Circuit Court jury awarded them $6 million from FCCI for breaching a contract and malicious prosecution after a three-week-long trial. It is broken down as $4.8 million in compensatory damages to recover what the Peters’ lost, and $1.2 million in punitive damages to punish the bad behavior of the insurance company. The jury found that FCCI intended to harm Debra Peters and that the company did so with unreasonable financial gain as the motivation. Their attorneys stated that Debra and Ronald Peters “just want to get back to work and restart their business, as they would have done if the insurance company had only paid what was owed after the hurricane.”
FCCI’s senior vice-president said they were disappointed with the Broward County ruling and are considering appealing the judgment, claiming their reputation is “paramount.” This could delay settlement of the case.
Cases like Debra and Ronald Peters’, where an insurance company pushes the less powerful customer around and tries to cheat the policyholder out of benefits paid for and due, show why it is important to talk to a Florida insurance attorney about your situation. And it is also important to remember that if you proceed with a case, under Florida law, if you succeed, the attorney’s fees will automatically be the responsibility of the insurance company. This means that no matter how big or small your claim, if you win your case, you get to keep the entire award and the insurance company will pay all of your lawyer’s fees.
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