Chip Merlin’s Well-Grounded Boots

When disaster strikes, this Tampa lawyer helps victims stake their claims

Published in 2018 Florida Super Lawyers — June 2018

As a young attorney, William “Chip” Merlin thought about the moment he’d meet his maker, and the sentence he most did not want to say: 

“Hi! I just saved Travelers Insurance $25 million.” 

Merlin began his career at a law firm that did nothing but property insurance defense work. He was busy but unfulfilled. “It occurred to me that there was no one on the policyholder side doing this on a regular basis, and the insurance companies had a big advantage because they had people like me who were doing it day in and day out,” he says. “Switching over made sense to me.” 

So he hung a shingle in 1985, and the Tampa-based Merlin Law Group has been doing plaintiff’s-side work ever since. A major focus is representing policyholders in the wake of disaster. The job is boots-on-the-ground: He lived in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, in Houston after Hurricane Ike, and in New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy. 

“We have represented Florida businesses, condominiums and homeowners with various claims disputes with insurance companies ranging from fire to hurricanes,” Merlin says. “Before Hurricane Irma hit, we were busy with Hurricane Matthew insurance claims, primarily along the east and upper northeast part of Florida.”  

Merlin and his team typically dispatch to an area almost immediately after disaster strikes, then start getting clients about three months later, when the policy disputes begin. “These people are extraordinarily devastated,” he says. “When I went to Biloxi after Katrina, it was like God had blown away a quarter of a mile of everything on the beach; inland wasn’t much better. … You think, ‘Where are we going to put our team?’ I had experts in a Holiday Inn with no A/C that had dolphins swimming around the hotel pool. Still have no idea how they got there.”

Merlin’s career has given him a front-row seat to Mother Nature’s indiscriminate power. In the past year alone, Harvey, Irma and Maria—and the fires out West—have kept the firm busy. 

“It’s just amazing how fast a fire can move,” he says, noting the stories of “some of our clients out West who had just minutes’ warning to escape because winds were blowing 40 to 50 miles. We’re dealing with phone calls from individuals with the most fabulous U.S. homes that were wiped out; and then there are people in rural areas of Puerto Rico with [Hurricane Maria] claims just as important.” 

Like his tour-de-force foe, Merlin doesn’t discriminate. “I’d go broke if I only took smaller claims,” he says. “But we have to take care of a 70-year-old with a $12,000 difference of opinion on their flood insurance as well as the business owner with a $12 million claim.”

It’s the smaller claims that stoke his passion. “The poor especially need us,” he says. “They’re more easily taken advantage of, ignorant to their rights. Now, I think there are a lot of fine people working for insurance companies, but there tend to be some claims-handling problems that are more specific to those insurance companies that push profit-center goals after a disaster over helping people.” 

Merlin typically gets calls after insurance companies have delayed, denied or underpaid claims. Of course, actually filing your claim can also be pretty difficult when the desk in which you kept policy paperwork is splintered on your front lawn; or, worse, reduced to ashes. 

“Often, there’s nothing there. No policy or paperwork. It’s either flooded, blown away or burnt up,” he says. “And you can’t call someone—there are no phones, plus your agent’s office is flooded or destroyed, too. And you’re supposed to answer questions like, ‘How many pairs of shoes did you have? Where are your receipts?’”

These days, Merlin spends much of his time in his firm’s satellite office in Puerto Rico to work Hurricane Maria claims.

“It’s still very difficult to get out to parts of the island—I haven’t been everywhere I need to yet,” he says. “Many people were left with nothing but clothes on their back, but it’s amazing the pride on display. There are Puerto Rican flags flying all over the place.”

In Florida, claims have begun to come in from Hurricane Irma. “We’re Floridians—we’ve had so many hurricanes, but the Keys have been hit so very hard,” he says. “And the fear is there are more powerful storms to come.”

As a youngster who spent time sailing Florida’s coast, Merlin has seen big changes. 

“Anyone worth their salt knows the beach has eroded significantly,” he says. “And high tide is much higher, too. I absolutely believe in global warming. Actuaries who look at global warming and study these trends have models that say there might be fewer hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, but when they do come, they’ll be much more severe. I follow these trends because it’s my job, but at the end of the day, I’m a policyholder, too.”

 


 

The Costliest U.S. Hurricanes

Irma

2017

$50 billion

Sandy

2012

$71 billion

Maria

2017

$90 billion

Harvey

2017

$125 billion

Katrina

2005

$161 billion

 

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