You pay property insurance—thousands of dollars a year—expecting to get money to rebuild your home when disaster strikes. Five months after Hurricane Ian, one Cape Coral family lives in limbo. They say they followed all the rules, but can’t get their claim paid, so they contacted WINK investigates reporter Céline McArthur for help.
If Ian damaged your home, chances are you’re waiting for insurance to pay up, so you can rebuild. You probably also have a checklist, with questions you need answered:
Where is my money? How much money am I getting? When am I getting my money? What else do I need to do to get my money?
A Southwest Florida couple says they can’t get any of these questions answered because they couldn’t get their insurance company to pick up the phone or respond to emails. They even hired professionals to help. As I began investigating, I discovered their story illustrates a property insurance problem in Southwest Florida that may soon worsen.
Elaine Damiano visits her Cape Coral home every day with at least one of her golden retrievers by her side. She gets emotional when she explains why.
“It’s their home. Excuse me. I live here. I live here. This is my house. And I want my house back.”
Hurricane Ian tore through the roof. Sheets of plywood cover spots where the ceiling collapsed, damaging nearly everything underneath. A week after the storm passed, an adjuster for her insurance carrier—Cypress Property and Casualty Insurance Company out of Jacksonville—came by to inspect.
“He came in, we walked through. He took pictures,” said Elaine.
The adjuster told her what she needed to hear.
“‘You’re going to be covered,'” said Elaine. “‘We’ll take care of all of this. We’ll take care of all of this.'”
But those words didn’t offer any relief.
“Ever get that inner feeling, that little voice inside you, that gut feeling that says, the more he said it, the more frightened I got,” said Elaine. “The more he said it, my instincts were kicking off and saying to me, we’re in for the fight of our life.”
So, she and her husband Michael hired a public adjuster. That move comes at a cost: 10% of what they recover from the insurance. That’s 10% of what they need to rebuild. While they figure out what to live without, their public adjuster Scotty Moland explains why he believes he’s worth paying for.
“How many people read their insurance policy and understand it? How many people know how to properly assess damage from a hurricane? Do they know how to apply statutory law for like kind and quality and matching? Do they understand the building code? If you answered no to any one of those questions, then you’ve left money on the table,” said Moland. “If you don’t know to ask for it, you probably won’t get it.”
Cypress sent them a check for nearly $51,000 to cover the damage. Elaine says she got nothing for living expenses, which are covered in their policy.
“We even got insurance, an extra amount of $35,000 to cover our rent if we had to be displaced,” said Elaine. “This is insane.”
Moland’s estimate—on the other hand—came in at around $384,000. He defended his findings.
“Everything that I do in this is directly related to what happened, not what I think happened. It’s not an opinion,” said Moland.
He sent his estimate to Cypress on November 18th of 2022, and says he got zero response for nearly three months.
“I don’t know what their thoughts are on this,” said Moland. “They haven’t called me about it, they haven’t responded to it.”
Céline: “Have you ever seen anything like this before?”
Moland: “Not for this length of time.”
As for Cypress’ $51,000 estimate…
“This is enough to get started on something. But it’s not enough to finish anything,” said Moland.
Elaine realized she also needed legal guidance.
“Now we have to get an attorney. So that again, takes away everything takes away from the amount of money that we’re going to keep getting back,” said Elaine.
Her attorney, Greg Littman explains his first move.
“We filed what’s called a Civil Remedies Notice with the Florida Department of Financial Services, and they have now 60 days to respond to that.”
Littman believes Cypress broke the law when the company failed to respond to the public adjuster’s estimate. He filed the notice so the couple can take Cypress to court. It’s a move Littman says would not have been necessary if the system worked.
“The insurance company has every incentive to keep it going. Because there’s, you know, they don’t have anything to lose anymore,” said Littman. “Without lawyers, they’re just walking all over these people. And, you know, I’m still litigating Hurricane Michael claims for significant damages. And now with one-way attorney’s fees, well, what incentive does the insurance company have to resolve claims? They don’t.”
I tracked down Cypress Executive Vice President Jeff Vanderpool on LinkedIn. He told me he needed up to 72 hours to review Elaine’s claim and respond.
Vanderpool called me 36 hours later. I asked him why Elaine and her husband have been waiting so long for a response to her public adjuster’s estimate. Vanderpool admits they dropped the ball, saying “It was in our claim file, but for some reason, it fell off the assigned adjuster’s radar. And that’s why communication stopped from us.”
He also said he thought I’d be “ecstatic that we, you know, figured out what the breakdown is.”
Moland offers his take on Vanderpool’s response.
“If the shoe switched feet, I think he would disagree with his own assertion,” said Moland.
Vanderpool says the company is sending a new adjuster out to inspect the damages. I told him we’d be there to see the process at work.
Elaine believes Cypress lowballed and stonewalled their claim at least in part because she’s a senior citizen.
“Honest to God, I do think it’s our ages [that] make us expendable,” said Elaine.
… and, at 75 years old, non-adversarial.
“I think the more they ignore you, maybe they think you’re going to go away, that you’re going to get frustrated. You’re not going to go to the ninth degree. You’re not going to say you know what, maybe I’m going to run into somebody that’s going to want to take you on, maybe there’s going to be somebody out there that’s going to bring a light to this.”
“I think what’s happened in part because of your help, this is on the insurance company, on Cypress’ radar right now,” said Littman. “I think we’re going to have a large step forward in the case.”
There is an important lesson here. You are your best advocate. You need to fight. If you’re not getting answers, get on the phone, send emails, track down the executives online, get their contact information, and demand a response. If you don’t get through, do it again until you do.
We will follow Elaine’s claim until she’s paid and back in her home.