TALLAHASSEE -- Citizens Property Insurance spent $100 million in the past two years in legal fees and says its legal bills are rising because a handful of aggressive South Florida law firms — most in Miami-Dade County — have targeted the insurance giant with water-damage claims in a hurricane-free year.
According to a report the insurer released Monday, while Miami-Dade residents have 19 percent of all Citizens policies in force, the county “accounts for 33 percent of all reported claims and 60 percent of all litigated claims statewide,” with the bulk of those claims coming from water-damage losses.
In addition, 84 percent of all claims in the past five years have originated in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, the report said. Ten law firms are responsible for 50 percent of the lawsuits against the company and 60 percent of those suits come from Miami-Dade.
“Claims are increasing because Citizens is a target,’’ Barry Gilway, CEO of Citizens, said in an interview last week.
The report serves as a counterpoint to legislators and law firms who have accused the company of using delay tactics as its principal legal strategy in an effort to make the state-run insurer appear to be more profitable.
Those lawyers say Florida policyholders are paying millions in unnecessary legal expenses because of Citizens’ practice of refusing to pay many claims without a lawsuit.
“I love it when insurers treat their insureds like they are asking for ‘handouts’ when they file claims,’’ said Ted Corless, a Tampa attorney who won a $15 million judgment against Citizens last week. “If they get claims that are owed, pay them, and you won’t be a target.”
The 44-page report, a litigation analysis, found that Citizens spent $64 million in defense fees in 2012 and has already spent $46 million on defense lawyers and fees this year.
By contrast, the company spent at least $16 million between January 2011 and June 2013 on legal fees paid out to plaintiffs’ lawyers — those representing policyholders who won their cases, according to a public records request of the company.
The report does not say how much the company could have saved had it paid its claims rather than waiting until it was sued. It does not analyze how many lawsuits are pending and what the potential cost of those claims, plus legal costs, might be.
But rather than focus on the cost of the company’s legal strategy, the Citizens report instead depicted how aggressive lawyers, mostly from Miami, have filed numerous lawsuits in the last couple of years against the company.
Several lawyers involved in the claims have told the Herald/Times that the lawsuits were filed because Citizen’s failed to pay for water damage from leaking or broken pipes, forcing homeowners to take them to court.
“Do I think there are aggressive attorneys litigating against Citizens? Yes,’’ said state Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican whose law firm is one of the top 10 companies responsible for the rise in litigation against Citizens. “But it’s also their hard-line tactics. If it’s a water claim, it’s denied. They’ll win some and lose some but when you spend $60,000 in attorneys fees litigating a $20,000 claim, it’s not the wisest use of resources.”