By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Kim Gurney is freaking out. Michael has never been in trouble with the law; he's a great father and husband, she says. Now she's afraid she won't be able to pay the bills on her own. "I feel like I'm just waiting for my life to be over," she says. "This is not somebody who needs to be kept off the streets. If I go into labor early again, who is going to take care of my daughter? I was in the hospital for 11 days when she was born."
The State Attorney's Office has offered Michael 90 days in a prison drug treatment program in lieu of the three-year sentence. But even three months without pay could push the Gurneys into financial ruin.
Michael Gurney's attorney, Roy Prize, hopes the prosecutor will put together an offer that doesn't involve jail time. "This is a guy with back problems who messed up by getting painkillers from a friend instead of going to a doctor for a prescription," Prize says.
"He belongs at home with his child and pregnant wife."
If Florida law didn't call for a mandatory sentence, the judge in the case would have more discretion. Instead, all the power lies in the hands of the prosecutor.
Greg Lauer, who left the State Attorney's Office in April to go into private practice, says the Florida statute governing drug charges is just poorly written. When he was a state prosecutor, Lauer remembers begging his supervisor on numerous occasions to soften trafficking charges like the one Gurney is facing.
But the State Attorney's Office is supposed to enforce the law, not rewrite it. "No state attorney wants to be called soft on crime," Lauer says.
The longer Tailpipe lives in Florida, the more it looks like Singapore. Maybe the state attorney should offer Gurney the option of being caned.
Wilma Sticking Around
The 2005 hurricane season may be a distant memory, but for dozens of condo associations across the state, it was just the start of a dishearteningly tedious battle with Australian insurer QBE. Condo dwellers say the insurer nitpicks and stalls in an effort to either avoid payment altogether or reimburse just a portion of storm damages.
"It was a claim from hell," says James Ofstein, who lives in Fort Lauderdale's Embassy Condo, which is insured by QBE. The 52-unit building, erected in 1974, lost half its roof to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 and the other half to Wilma the next October. Water damage made some units uninhabitable.
Rather than wait for QBE to pay up, Embassy's board put through special assessment fees of $3,000 or more per unit to fix the roof. Good thing too, because the residents still haven't been reimbursed. The condo's public adjuster put the damage at more than $1 million; QBE argued that it was more like $180,000. The two sides, with the help of lawyers, expect to settle soon at somewhere in between.
David Pettinato, Embassy's attorney, has handled cases against most major insurance providers in Florida. He says QBE seems to be the most difficult of the bunch. "They will ask for every maintenance record back to the beginning of time," Pettinato says. "It's a bullying and intimidation tactic."
The stress wore down Ofstein, who was president of the Embassy condo board when the hurricanes struck. He has since resigned. "If you're the president of the association and everyone is knocking on your door at all hours to ask what's going on, it gets to be too much," he says.
Ofstein, who is 50, had a heart attack last November. He says there are significant repairs still to be made to his building, but at least the discord among residents is starting to dissipate.
It looks like QBE's day of reckoning might be around the corner. In August, a federal jury ordered the Australian insurer to pay $8.1 million in damages from a 2005 hurricane to Boca Raton condo community Chalfonte. And the Florida Department of Financial Services is wrapping up an investigation of the company. Meanwhile, 11 other condo associations in Broward and Palm Beach counties are suing QBE for more than a million each.
QBE is Florida's biggest condo insurer, covering property worth $33 billion. The multinational company reported a record $921 billion in net profit for the first half of 2007 — and it has the legal muscle to match.
When facing off with this Goliath, lawyers say, they often hope for a settlement at best. The Chalfonte ruling changes that. "It breaches the concept that QBE is invincible," says Daniel Rosenbaum, chief attorney for Chalfonte.
Hey, QBE: Remember the song? "Little David was small, but oh my/He fought with Goliath who lay down and dieth..."