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Delayed Indemnity

At first glance, Czeslaw Bobryk's central Palm Beach County apartment is an enigma. His sofa and easy chair face a squat television stand that is obviously designed to hold a jumbo set. But there's no TV on it. To its right is a multishelf entertainment center. But precious little in the way of diversion rests upon it. Bobryk shuffles through a stack of papers, producing pawn slips for his wide-screen television, Compaq computer, Rolex watch, and other valuables. He eyes a bicycle leaning against the wall that belongs to his 15-year-old son, Mario. "That may be next," Bobryk says in Slavic-accented English.

Bobryk journeyed from Poland to America two years ago, business visa in hand and business plan in mind. A mechanic by trade, he hoped one day to export boats and cars to Europe by capitalizing on contacts he'd developed during two decades as a mechanic and sailor. Today, however, the 45-year-old's capitalist dreams have all but disappeared -- just like his belongings. The stack of papers documents why: a truck accident five months ago, a recalcitrant insurance company, a lost job, mounting bills.

Florida is not a state that fosters speedy settlements of collision claims. That's apparent from a quick look at the Website of the Florida Department of Insurance, which regulates the industry in the Sunshine State. "How long does an insurance company have to settle an auto claim?" is one query posted on the site's "Frequently Asked Questions" section. Answer: "There is no specific time limit during which the company must come to a settlement with an insured or a third party." Another FAQ helpfully offers that no Florida statute or department rule addresses how soon an insurance company must inspect a vehicle or authorize a rental car after a collision.

In other words, you're on your own.

Bobryk, who spent many years working -- and driving -- in heavily regulated Western Europe, expresses dismay about Florida's buyer-beware attitude toward insurance. He saves outright vitriol for his insurer, Ocean Harbor Casualty Insurance, and the agency that sold him the policy, Federal Insurance in Lake Worth.

Joe Celli, claims manager for Ocean Harbor, who is now hip-deep in the matter, comments: "It hasn't been very easy to deal with the gentleman. His lack of cooperation hasn't helped matters. We've made an offer to pay the claim."

Celli's offer is too little and too late, says Bobryk. It comes after months of stonewalling by Federal Insurance that has left him broke.

Bobryk has intense blue eyes, deep vertical lines in his face, and a full head of dark hair swept back and graying at the temples. He's slightly built, with strong-looking hands and a dark tan. He speaks German, Russian, and Polish -- and has more command of English than he realizes. When he struggles to find the right English word, he usually turns to Mario with a scrunched look of inquiry. Bobryk is proud of his worldliness. "Look at all these places," he says, handing over his passport, which is full of stamps from Europe, Russia, and former Soviet satellite countries. "I am Europe guy, Europe man," he boasts. "I know what people need in Netherlands. It is expensive there, cheap here. It's a good thing to transfer from here to there." After graduating from college in Poland, he began repairing boats and vehicle engines. He saved about $43,000, which he planned to use to begin an export business.

Bobryk arrived in New York City about two years ago with his then-wife and Mario. Soon he settled in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood, a gathering point for Polish immigrants. He and his wife divorced after a year. Then Bobryk and Mario moved to Florida. The father believed it was less expensive to live here.

He used some of his savings to buy a 1998 Ford F-150 pickup truck for $11,700 in cash. "Without a car, you're nothing here," he explains. "It's not like New York." He took a job with a Fort Lauderdale roofing company making about $700 a week, and Mario enrolled in junior high school.

Last December, Bobryk and his son motored back to New York City for Christmas. On December 15, while driving his truck to a friend's house in Brooklyn for dinner, Bobryk turned left in front of an oncoming car he didn't see. The car smashed into his pickup, activating its airbags. Bobryk wasn't hurt, but the truck was undrivable. It was towed to Main Collision Center in Clifton, New Jersey. The shop estimated the damages at $6336. Bobryk left the wreck in storage at the garage, and he and Mario hopped a Greyhound bus to Florida.

Once back, Bobryk called Federal Insurance and, he claims, was told by a female agent that his policy included collision repair. During a subsequent call, however, Bobryk was told he had no such coverage and that the female agent no longer worked there. Bobryk asked for all copies of previous policy declarations, which he says the agency refused to give him. He was, however, given a one-page breakdown of his current policy dated January 14, 2002, that indicated he had no collision coverage. Celli denies that the company refused Bobryk documents. "We send out disclosure on a regular basis," he says.

In response to his continued complaints, Bobryk received an amended declaration of coverage dated March 1; inexplicably, it contained collision coverage.

Meanwhile, Bobryk had lost his job because he couldn't commute to Fort Lauderdale from his apartment complex just south of Forest Hill Boulevard in unincorporated Palm Beach County. The fee for storage of his truck continued to mount, and he was nearing the end of his savings. It wasn't until April -- four months after the accident -- that Ocean Harbor had the truck inspected. At the end of April, the company sent Bobryk a "proof of loss" form, which stated the company accepted the original estimate of $6336. Minus the policy's $500 deductible, the company offered to pay Bobryk $5836. The document also included a stipulation that would have prohibited Bobryk from claiming costs like storage, car rental, or lost wages. Bobryk balked at signing because he's lost much more.

Celli claims that Bobryk did not contact the insurance company until March 26, more than three months after the collision. "Originally, he was going to go through the insurance of the other party he had the accident with," Celli asserts.

Bobryk, however, is adamant that he called the company immediately after returning to Florida. The agency's subsequent assertion that he didn't have collision coverage, however, deterred him from filing a claim. Celli responds: "He's had collision since the policy's inception. No one at the agency would have given him that perception at all."

Celli began processing the claim personally in late April, and on May 1, he approved the disbursal of $5836. "He refuses to sign the proof of loss -- I guess because somebody gave him a hard time during the processing of the claim and he wants to make it difficult," Celli says.

Bobryk's stance has come at a cost. His 27-inch TV, which he bought for $800, brought him $150 at a pawn shop. The Compaq computer -- considerably more essential for a 15-year-old than a television -- delivered $280. A neighbor has given them food to tide them over at times. It's all left Bobryk doubting his ability to ever get a business off the ground. He whacks his forehead with his palm, moaning that he can't seem to learn English with all that's on his mind.

In early May, Bobryk contacted the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County and was referred to Joseph Jordan, an attorney who has advised Bobryk for free. Jordan declined to discuss specifics for this story but notes that provisions in the state's unfair trade practices statute require companies to deal in good faith with consumers.

Faced with eviction, Bobryk recently sold his damaged truck for $2000 to Main Collision Center for storage fees. For the time being, he says, he can pay his rent. Despite his pawned-bare apartment, Bobryk won't surrender. "Even if I go hungry, I'm going to fight," he growls. "I can't be with people like that."

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson

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