FT. LAUDERDALE, FL--- "Imagine filing a legitimate insurance claim in an effort to save the 20-year-old business you built from the ground up only to find yourself charged with fraud, strip searched and thrown in jail," said Scott P. Schlesinger, of Schlesinger Law Offices in Fort Lauderdale.
Sounds like a plot for a John Grisham novel, but it actually happened to Debra Peters who, with her husband Ronald, once owned a thriving high-end furniture and cabinetry making company that was decimated by Hurricane Wilma in 2005, according to Schlesinger.
On Feb. 6, 2013 Schlesinger and a trial team comprised of lead attorney Steven J. Hammer, Jonathan R. Gdanski and Charles B. Patrick won a $6 million verdict against Sarasota, Fla.-based FCCI Commercial Insurance Company that was filed in Broward County Circuit Court. The verdict followed a three-week trial that proved the insurance company was guilty of both breach of contract and malicious prosecution.
Despite the fact that the Peters family had an insurance policy in place which was paid in full, FCCI not only refused to fully pay the claim, but filed false and incomplete information with the Florida Department of Insurance. As a result of FCCI's actions, criminal charges alleging insurance fraud were filed against Debra Peters.
"FCCI was relentless and they fabricated these charges. They were using their own Special Investigation Unit in combination with the Department of Insurance as a collection agency to strong-arm Debra Peters, who was facing 30 years behind bars," said Hammer. "They used the threat of prison and its consequence of becoming a registered convicted felon as leverage to try to extract restitution from the family, all in an effort to avoid having to pay the insurance claim."
Upon recognizing the truth, the Broward County State Attorney's Office dropped its case against Debra Peters, but not before it had taken its toll on her and her family. Debra Peters testified she is still haunted by the experience.
"This insurance company acted with impunity because they enjoy great advantages from the laws that they helped to write." Schlesinger said. "It is a rare and precious moment to be able to have the opportunity to reach a jury to show intentional wrongful conduct by an insurer, but FCCI's actions were sufficiently egregious that the jury was afforded the legal right and chose to penalize the insurance company."
After a three-week trial against FCCI, the six-member jury agreed that FCCI not only intended to harm Debra Peters, but that its conduct was motivated solely by unreasonable financial gain. According to Mr. Hammer, "The jury's conclusion that the insurance company acted with malice and fraudulently reported Debra Peters to investigators underscores the depths to which this company went to avoid paying the amount owed which was rightfully due to the Peters family under their policy."
The Peters family was able to borrow money from friends to fix the building they owned, but because they were not able to replace the equipment they needed to continue operating, Ronald Peters had to lease the space to another company who he now works for.
"With this verdict, Ron and Debbie hope to be able to get back to what they were doing before and to restore their business to pursue what they once had which was an American success story," Gdanski said.
About Schlesinger Law Offices:
Schlesinger Law Offices, based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is a consumer justice law firm focused on holding big corporations and major manufacturers accountable for the harm they cause and the damage suffered by the general public through acts of negligence and misconduct. The firm is currently working on cases involving Big Tobacco, Accutane medication, defective medical devices, and defective drug products. For more information log on to www.schlesingerlawoffices.com.
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