Association struggles with insurer

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald

By Nirvi Shah

Published October 27, 2010

Five years have passed since Hurricane Wilma sheared away portions of Buckley Towers and cracked the exterior walls, letting water invade so that now, the building is decaying as quickly from the inside out as from the outside in.

But aside from a new roof, paid for with a $1.5 million Small Business Administration loan, Buckley Towers hasn't been able to make many repairs to its tattered buildings, although it has won a court battle with its insurer, QBE, and is gearing up for another.

"You think if you have coverage, you're going to get some help,'' said Peggy Stroker, the condominium association president and a Buckley Towers resident since 1992. The association was paying about $48,000 a month in premiums to QBE before Wilma struck.

Once graceful and progressive, the two 17-story towers built in 1969 overlook the water along Miami Gardens Drive. Stroker said Buckley Towers was one of the first high-rise condominiums in the country, building off the idea of co-ops up north.

Now, red spray-painted lines mark cracks along the exterior walls where engineers are observing whether the gaps enlarge as time passes. The buildings appear old-fashioned and run down. Some owners have abandoned their condos because of the depressing mix of being upside down on their mortgages and living in the unsightly, unsettling conditions.

Owners tell Stroker they are afraid of what they are breathing.

The two condo towers have been scheduled for demolition by the Miami-Dade County Unsafe Structures Board, although the court judgment and basic repairs are sparing the buildings and their 1,200 residents from that fate, for now.

Buckley Towers attorney Daniel Rosenbaum said the condo and the insurer wrangled over when and what QBE had to pay. The condo couldn't get the money it won for replacement costs because its contract was written in a way that required Buckley to make the repairs, then be repaid. The condo couldn't afford to do that.

That left it with a claim for the actual cash value of the damages. Including attorneys fees of about $1.6 million, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in September that Buckley Towers should be paid about $13 million. This judgment has stuck, although the association wants another $4 million in interest the settlement has accumulated since Buckley's claim was first denied in early 2006.

The association has also filed a suit for more than $500 million alleging bad faith and deception in handling the property's hurricane insurance claims.

Winning that award will be key, Stroker said, because of the cost of repairs. New hurricane windows alone for both buildings would cost$7 million to $10 million, she said.

Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty noted that QBE remains one of the few private insurers providing coverage for condo towers, echoing industry concerns about Florida being unfriendly to insurers. Sixty percent of that business belongs to state-run Citizens Property Insurance, McCarty said.

QBE is financially strong, he said, although the company has twice been investigated by his office. A 2007 review cited problems with QBE's adjusted claims, including delays in responding to policyholders and in paying claims. The review resulted in a $150,000 fine against QBE.

"We would certainly encourage consumers, if they continue to have problems with QBE, let us know,'' he said. "We will work with the insurance company to make sure that they pay every valid claim.''

Rosenbaum said even in the case of a valid claim like that of Buckley Towers, the insurance company had the upper hand. The condo association had to come up with money for repairs before their claims were paid. In cases of major damage, that can be an impossible task.

And not all associations have the ability to sue.

"The market is rigged toward benefiting the insurance company,'' he said. ``There's a lot of Buckleys out there who don't have the chance to file a lawsuit.''

An attorney for QBE said the insurer had no comment.

Stroker is trying to forget about QBE and Hurricane Wilma. She blocks out those images with ones of how Buckley Towers will be beautiful once again.

"If we can do this, we can show the insurance company that even though you put us in this hell, we can do this,'' she said. "We can be an example for the future.''