Tuesday, September 18 2012
TEQUESTA, Fla. – Sept. 12, 2012 – A Tequesta homeowner who said her insurance premium nearly doubled after a reinspection for storm-resistant credits filed suit in federal court against Mueller Services, a contractor working for Citizens Property Insurance Corp.
The suit marks at least the second seeking class-action status in connection with the massive reinspection program, which affects more than 250,000 customers of Florida’s last-resort insurer. Citizens is Florida’s largest property insurer with 1.4 million customers including 140,000 in Palm Beach County.
Stephanie Ritchie said a 2011 inspection that was supposed to be good for five years granted her credits for features that hardened her home against hurricanes, such as shutters and a qualifying roof configuration.
But after an inspector sent by Mueller Services visited as part of the Citizens reinspection program in May of this year, her annual premium went up almost $1,800, nearly doubling, she said. She made no changes to the home and believes she fully qualifies for the credits she was denied.
“I was very angry,” Ritchie said. “Nothing changed. We didn’t do anything.”
The suit, filed in federal court, asks for more than $5 million on behalf of thousands of other customers affected. The suit alleges Mueller engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices and “withheld payments to inspectors” until they found homeowners were not entitled to credits.
A Mueller employee said the company could not talk to the media under terms of its agreement with Citizens.
“We are not a party to this suit,” Citizens spokeswoman Christine Ashburn said. “As Mueller is the named defendant, we do not know at this time if they have been served.”
Citizens denies allegations the reinspection program was a “subterfuge” to raise premiums in another lawsuit filed earlier this year by customers in Palm Beach and Broward counties. That suit names Citizens as a defendant.
Company officials have maintained they and contractors removed credits mistakenly granted in the past or no longer good as the state has periodically revised rules about what features qualify.
Mueller Services was founded in 1980 in Buffalo, N.Y. and today employs more than 1,100, according to its website.
Mueller overruled the independent judgment of inspectors in 34.5 percent of cases, a higher percentage than other Citizens contractors including Inspection Depot Inc. (16.5 percent) and Quality Built LLC (19.5 percent), an analysis of more 225,000 inspections by The Palm Beach Post found Sept. 2. In all, Citizens and its contractors rejected more than 90,000 reports by inspectors.
Overall, the inspection program has raised bills for 74 percent of homeowners visited, increasing premiums by $155 million a year. Citizens has cleared more than $116 million after paying inspectors.
“What’s fundamentally wrong is she had one inspection done a year ago that found no deficiencies,” said plaintiff attorney Brian Smith of Smith & Vanture in West Palm Beach. “It was good for five years. Without any changes, a reinspection is ordered that finds deficiencies that were not there – and are not there now.”
Copyright © 2012 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.), Charles Elmore. Distributed by MCT Information Services.