TALLAHASSEE — A law firm that has received more than $1.5 million to help coordinate strategy on sinkhole lawsuits for Citizens Property Insurance Corp. was awarded a $6.5 million contract Friday to serve in an expanded role for all claims litigation.
The approval came over the objection of state Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, who said the Citizens Board of Governors should take more time to review the proposal that he considers a "waste of policyholder money" through a "giveaway" to a well-connected law firm.
The board of the state-backed insurer voted 4-1 — with Vice Chairman Don Glisson opposed — to approve the three-year contract with Ackerman, Link & Sartory P.A of West Palm Beach.
Citizens officials estimate that the use of outside counsel to review pretrial litigation could save the insurer as much as $97 million in future defense fees by identifying claims that can quickly be settled long before reaching court.
There are currently 2,142 sinkhole claims and about 10,000 non-sinkhole claims pending before Citizens, according to Dan Sumner, Citizens general counsel.
Also, the contract will require Ackerman, Link & Sartory to train on-staff attorneys at Citizens to take over the counsel duties as the contract expires. The largest part of the contract will pay attorney Scott Link $525 an hour, up to $1.05 million a year.
Ackerman, Link & Sartory has been coordinating counsel on sinkhole lawsuits since being awarded a $1.5 million contract in 2012. The value of the sinkhole contract has already been reached, and the Citizens board had earlier agreed to pay the firm $100,000 a month until the awarding of the larger counsel contract.
With more than 10,000 cases pending, Sumner said Citizens needs to have a statewide, uniform policy on how it approaches cases and to establish rules on how to determine which cases can be settled as they come in. He said Ackerman, Link & Sartory can help in both areas.
"We should not be settling cases on courthouse steps; we should settle them early on in the process," Sumner said.