Wherever there's a hurricane, Tampa lawyer William F. "Chip" Merlin is there.
Ditto for wildfires, tornadoes, earthquakes, dust storms, hailstorms, mudslides. Even fluke disasters like a fire that destroyed a tobacco giant's stock of 70-year-old tobacco seeds imported from Cuba.
For more than 25 years, Merlin has prided himself on being a thorn in the side of insurers by representing property owners in thousands of suits large and small.
Among his latest causes: opposing sharply higher Citizens Property Insurance sinkhole rates, an issue championed by one of the newest members of Merlin Law Group: former Florida Insurance Consumer Advocate Sean Shaw.
This summer, Merlin opened his latest branch office in Los Angeles, giving his company a coast-to coast presence.
The St. Petersburg Times recently visited Tampa Bay's master of disaster in his law firm's Harbour Island headquarters, chatting about the future of Florida's long-suffering property insurance industry and how his firm fits in.
How long have you been litigating property insurance cases?
My entire adult life, and I'm 52 now. I graduated from the University of Florida law school in '82, but I clerked for a law firm that's actually three stories underneath me right now. Paul Butler was the first attorney that hired me, and he now has a law firm with over 100 attorneys in four different states representing insurance companies. Many of those people down there are still very dear friends.
After working for them for three years, I left and switched sides in 1985 and started my own practice representing policyholders. And I did some personal injury work (with a former partner) up until the year 2000. Now I'm strictly focused on property insurance.
You were on a task force trying to fix state-run Citizens Property Insurance years ago. Is Florida's insurance market any healthier?
It's more precarious than after Hurricane Andrew because so many of those private insurance companies have left. It's less precarious with respect to Citizens, because there's been a buildup of surplus. Citizens has been a financial success in terms of building up cash, but let's face it: Two big hurricanes in one year would wipe it out.
We've been very fortunate there hasn't been any significant strikes in a major metropolitan area in Florida and any strike at all since 2005. Where we are as a state, though, is not so good. We don't have, in my opinion, the capacity to rebuild all of our infrastructure and businesses because the governments now are broke. There is no backstop. FEMA is now out of money. The truth is there is not insurance within the various governmental municipalities, the school districts. A major concern to me if we were to have a major catastrophe is the rebuilding of the schools, the roads, the bridges.
Imagine you're king for a day. How would you fix the property insurance nightmare?
I would want to reassure the insurance industry that everyone can compete on a level playing field in determining where policies are going to be written and how policies are going to be written. Forms of policies should be standardized. … They should take risks across the state and not cherry-pick by insuring only where they're not going to have losses.
Consumers need to be protected from practices that are caused by competitive influences on the insurance industry. Let me explain: If an insurance company can rewrite its policy ever so slightly so it insures a little bit less than its competitor but it's not noted by OIR (Florida Office of Insurance Regulation), it's able to charge the same amount in premium. Take it a step further: Suppose they cut benefits a little and charge even a little bit less. Most people would never notice the change in benefits when an insurance company says it can beat your rates by 15 percent. It's not saying, "By the way, we're also giving you less benefits." That's the job of the OIR: to make certain that consumers have a fair playing field and that the insurance industry doesn't kill itself by competition.
Where do you come down in the sinkhole debate?
I think that the insurance industry has wrongfully and extraordinarily exaggerated the amount of fraudulent sinkhole claims that exist. That is probably the biggest myth and lie that they try to spread to the Legislature and to the public to justify the change in the law and the change in the rates.
Has business slowed with the six-year break in Florida hurricanes?
What we've done is grow geographically. Our expertise in this niche area of law has allowed us to go into Mississippi, allowed us to open an office in Texas before hurricanes hit … and open offices in Los Angeles and Denver this year. The L.A. office is already doing well.
What perils are driving your California business?
Los Angeles has got everything. It's got the most bizarre perils … you can possibly imagine. Southern California has some beautiful areas, but let's go down the list of perils: First of all, earthquakes. Next, landslides and mudslides off the sides of mountains. They have floods. They have wildfires all over the place. They have mountains there, so they have avalanches. And every now and then they talk about one of those hurricanes in Mexico maybe going up to Los Angeles. With that huge ocean out there, they have floods and tsunamis. The state of California has more natural disasters and possibility of risks than any other state.
What are some of the biggest, most interesting cases you're working on now?
I'm still doing a lot of Hurricane Ike litigation in Texas. We're getting more phone calls from tornado losses in Birmingham to calls from wildfires in California to one chicken egg farmer outside of Houston whose major chicken coop burned up. You wouldn't think it was a lot of money. But if you have a million chickens in a chicken coop? That's a lot of eggs!
Some of the ways losses happen are amazing. I represented General Cigar when tobacco seed that they had stored … all burned up when one of their barns blew up. They were fortunate that a few weeks before that explosion, they had put the germinated seeds out into the field or they would have had no seeds whatsoever for the next year. And we were arguing over the value of tobacco seeds they had stored back from the time they had brought them from Cuba in the 1940s.
And smaller cases?
I literally sued (an auto insurer) representing a little old lady whose car had been stolen. They fixed everything but a hole in the muffler, and I said, "These kids took this car for a joy ride and obviously the hole in the muffler came from them being too rough on it. We need to fix the muffler. It's only going to cost $49." They said, "How can she prove the kids caused the hole?" I said, "She said it didn't have the hole before. It wasn't loud before, and it is now. … She's a little old lady. She didn't go joy riding with them, you know?" They said, "You're not going to sue over $49." And I said, "Yes, I am." And I did.
Did you win?
Not only did we win, but we won about $600 because we found other problems in the engine that hadn't been discovered. And they had to pay my attorney fees. It was a very expensive thing, but I gave them every chance in the world to settle.
So I've done it all. We've had $100 million claims where people are pounding their fists on the table. Very sophisticated clients to little old ladies. The dynamics are kind of the same.
Are you in the courtroom often?
Only about 5 percent of our cases end up in trial. The key is properly preparing those cases, knowing who the top experts are in the country on some really unique issues of valuation and determination of what was damaged. You have to know meteorologists, geologists, people who can explain how windows work and get damaged from air pressure changes. For a fire in a chicken coop, you have to find an expert who knows everything about chickens and their production and how a chicken under anxiety doesn't produce as many eggs. Stuff like that.
Are you still sailboat racing?
No, I haven't been, though I've recently recommitted to it.
I've been running. I've run over 35 marathons. I ran the Boston Marathon this April. It's been a couple years since I've raced sailboats now but I should do more. It's fun.
You got into racing growing up, right?
My father was in the Coast Guard. He was born and raised here in Tampa. He went to the Coast Guard Academy. I grew up all over the United States. I moved 11 times, went to three different high schools. When I went to Gainesville (at the University of Florida), it was the longest period of time I had stayed in one place. I was the first in my family to come back to Tampa, come back to my roots. Then my father came back and my two sisters.
I never lived here growing up, but I was actually born in St. Petersburg because my father was stationed on the Blackthorn (which sank in 1980 in the Sunshine Skyway Bridge catastrophe).
So I've come full circle.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8242.