by Michael A.W. Ottey, Miami Herald
As state regulators patiently listened, the insurance industry and homeowners on Tuesday squared off on the issue of a tiny organism both sides agree could have huge consequences: toxic mold. But the adversaries are miles apart on what impact the mold issue could have in the state. Homeowners and consumer lobbyists say the insurers are denying consumers their rights to claim financial losses because of toxic mold found in their homes.
The insurers and their representatives say the issue is nothing more than hysteria being fanned by lawyers looking to make a buck. The Florida Department of Insurance will decide how future mold claims will be handled after it holds three public hearings, the first of which was held Tuesday in Plantation. Hearings will be held in Tampa and Orlando in August. At least 300 people crammed into Plantation City Hall for the forum. Among them were people with claims that mold has forced them out of their homes and cost them their health, not to mention huge financial losses.
But the insurance companies say there is no scientific basis for the claims and are asking the state to limit such claims. According to insurers, they could wipe out the industry, lead to higher premiums or even force them to stop writing policies in Florida. “It clearly goes without saying mold has become something of a hot topic in the last several years,” said Steve Roddenberry, a member of the state insurance panel. He said the state has received more than 430 filings from insurers to exclude or limit mold coverage.
“The challenge facing the department is to find a way to ensure continued comprehensive coverage,” Roddenberry said. “The state needs a viable insurance industry.” Cynthia Lucania, who described herself as a victim of mold, told the panel that nobody wants the insurance companies to go bankrupt.
”But we want an equitable treatment,” she said. “We need to educate the public. The insurance companies have done quite a disservice to the public because they’ve been ignoring it for years. I think there’s a bad-faith issue there. They do not do right by the people who are paying them.”
Roy Oppenheim, an attorney, blamed the insurers’ stance on the stock market. He said insurance companies had investments in companies such as Enron and are trying to pass on their losses to consumers.
He said mold has never been excluded. “Why do we pay this insurance if they’re not going to be there when we need them?” he said. Gary Guzzo, who represents the Florida Insurance Council, said insurers are concerned that the mold litigation explosion in Texas and California is spreading to Florida “and threatens the affordability and availability of homeowner and commercial property insurance here.”
He continued: “The mold litigation explosion does not have a scientific basis, nor is it the result of a natural disaster.”