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Insurer Lloyd's blames FPL tree-trimming for $1M Riviera Beach fire

Palm Beach Post

Feb. 01--WEST PALM BEACH -- FPL has been cursed at for not trimming trees that blew down during hurricanes, leaving homeowners sweltering for days in dark houses.

The state's largest electric utility has also earned the wrath of community groups who have blasted it for butchering beloved trees in the name of power preservation.

This week, FPL's often controversial connection with trees sparked a lawsuit that blames it for a January 2018 fire that caused more than $1 million in damage and destroyed a Riviera Beach tire warehouse.

In a lawsuit filed in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, Lloyd's of London claims that if FPL had trimmed trees hovering near New and Used Wholesale Tires, the fire that raged for hours could have been averted.

According to Lloyd's investigation, the fire erupted because of FPL's "improper vegetative maintenance," wrote Boca Raton attorney Stephen Barker, who is representing the insurer. Tree branches that should have been trimmed hit electrical lines, producing sparks that ignited the warehouse filled with tires, he wrote in the lawsuit.

Rivera Beach firefighters battled the blaze on West 15th Street for nearly seven hours before it was extinguished, according to media reports.

Accusing FPL and its parent company, NextEra Energy, of gross negligence or at least negligence, Lloyd's is asking that the utility reimburse it for the $1 million it paid the building owner for damages caused by the fire.

FPL officials declined comment on the allegations, saying they don't talk publicly about pending litigation. One of the biggest electric companies in the nation, FPL provides power to roughly 10 million Florida residents.

Barker acknowledged that it is difficult to successfully sue FPL, which as a regulated utility enjoys unique protections as a quasi-governmental agency.

West Palm Beach attorney Julie Littky-Rubin in 2017 helped two Fort Myers attorneys score a rare multimillion-dollar victory against FPL in a tree-trimming case.

After a five-day trial, a Lee County jury awarded nearly $24 million to a woman whose son was electrocuted when a bamboo tree he was climbing struck the company's power lines. FPL is appealing the verdict.

In that case, attorneys Ty Roland and Evan Lubell presented evidence that FPL's own inspectors had said the tree needed to be trimmed, particularly because bamboo is a good conductor of electricity. Three years later, when 15-year-old Justin Dominguez climbed the tree behind his family's house, nothing had been done.

Barker said Lloyd's case is just beginning. Information about FPL's tree-trimming near the warehouse will surface as the lawsuit moves through the court system.


(c)2019 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

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