5 things to watch in 2019 for utilities, consumer issues and insurance

Published Dec. 28, 2018

Here are a few issues to keep an eye on for utilities, consumer issues and insurance in 2019.

1. Storm recovery costs from Hurricane Michael.

Tampa Bay was spared the worst of Hurricane Michael this fall, which devastated the Panhandle. But Tampa Bay Duke Energy Florida customers should be prepared to pick up some of the bill for the utility's efforts up north.

Utilities in Florida are allowed to recoup storm recovery costs from their customers with approval from the Florida Public Service Commission. Duke serves a portion of the Panhandle and undertook significant recovery efforts following the storm to restore power, as some of its infrastructure was entirely wiped away. Duke expects to file for recovery costs for Hurricane Michael in the first quarter of next year, according to spokeswoman Ana Gibbs.

Tampa Electric Co., which does not have customers in the Panhandle, will not be filing for cost recovery, spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs said. The utility sent crews up north to assist area utilities with recovery, but those were paid for by the host utilities. Its gas sister company, Peoples Gas, was affected in the Panama City area, and may file for cost recovery.

2. Flood insurance and the issues ahead.

Flood insurance gave homeowners, Congress and the insurance community whiplash this year with multiple short-term extensions right on the cusp of the expiration deadline. It looks as if Congress will again put off flood insurance reform, this time until the new year. On, President Donald Trump signed into law an extension of the National Flood Insurance Program through May 31, 2019, giving Congress time to pass a longer-term reauthorization.

3. The Florida Attorney General's case against Marlin Financial.

The Florida Attorney General's Office is currently suing online auto lender Marlin Financial, a company at the center of a September Tampa Bay Times investigation. The Times investigation found that Marlin saddled consumers with more debt than expected and didn't give some customers an opportunity to take their belongings from repossessed vehicles. Much of the additional debt stemmed from what's called a "debt cancellation" policy, which customers were told would wipe out their remaining debt if their car was totaled. Instead, the policy often more than doubled the debt for the contracts the Times reviewed. And customers said it wasn't optional.

Times' inquiries sparked an investigation by the Florida Attorney General, which led to a lawsuit by the state office alleging unfair and deceptive trade practices centering on the debt cancellation. Marlin is currently cooperating with the Florida Attorney General to provide more information about the debt cancellation on loans and modify customers payments to exclude debt cancellation.

4. Allegiant Air's shareholder lawsuit.

The parent of budget airline Allegiant Air and its executives are being sued by shareholder Charlotte Woolery over what she says is an "illicit and dangerous business model" that put Allegiant at significant financial risk.

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Drawing largely on investigations by the Tampa Bay Times and CBS's 60 Minutes, the lawsuit claims that the business model led by CEO Maurice Gallagher Jr. "devalued safety, maintenance and training" in favor of enriching the company. This, she said, led to the company's value falling. The case is ongoing in Nevada's Clark County district court. Allegiant is the dominant carrier at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport.

5. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's investigation into MagneGas Corp.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating Pinellas Park company MagneGas Corp. after a man died while moving a cylinder filled with its namesake gas in June. It is the second federal agency looking into the company over the incident — in addition to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — and the second-known death involving a MagneGas gas explosion.

The investigation is currently ongoing, and the family of Andrew Reynolds, who died in the June incident, has retained a lawyer.

Contact Malena Carollo at or (727) 892-2249. Follow @MalenaCarollo.