(DimaSobko)

Houston litigator Greg Cox convinced a South Texas jury that an insurance company’s treatment of his client was so bad that it amounted to malice, turning what was originally a $76,500 hailstorm claim into a $1.8 million verdict recently.

Cox, an attorney in Houston’s Mostyn Law, represents John R. Griffith, a McAllen homeowner who sued USAA Texas Lloyd’s Co. in 2014 for fraud, breach of contract and violations of the Texas Insurance Code. Griffith alleged the insurance company failed to fully reimburse him for the severe damage his house sustained after it was pummeled by baseball-sized hail in a 2012 storm.

While Cox alleged the company failed to reasonably investigate his claim and paid for a portion of his roof repair, it failed to reimburse him for the totality of his loss including damage to the home’s interior, siding, pool deck and fence. USAA denied the allegations and alleged that Griffith had failed to prove that the losses he suffered were covered by his policy with the company.

After a week-long trial, a Hidalgo County jury returned a verdict on Feb. 7 finding that not only had USAA breached its policy and committed fraud, but that the damage it inflicted on Griffith was done with malice, prompting them to award him $800,000 in exemplary damages on top of $1 million more for other causes of action.

The malice finding against the insurance company by the jury is what made the verdict notable, Cox said.

“In any case it’s difficult to get a malice finding—it’s not just that you have to prove that there was a fraud against your client, you have to prove it with clear and convincing evidence,” Cox said.

The malice finding was needed in order to secure exemplary damages against the insurance company and had originally asked the jury to award $674,000 as punishment—the amount of the policy limit coverage for Griffith’s home.

“But the jury increased that up to $800,000,” Cox said. “That’s what was even more unusual. They didn’t give everything we asked for, they gave us everything we asked for and more.”

Thomas Sanders, a partner in the San Antonio office of Dykema Gossett who represents USAA, said the company will appeal the verdict. USAA paid Griffith’s hail claim for damage to his roof in accordance with his insurance policy and denies that it committed fraud or malice, he said.

“There is simply no legal support for plaintiff’s fraud claim, which, in essence, argued that it was fraud to issue a policy with standard exclusions for such things as wear and tear, to his 10-year-old wood shake roof,” Sanders said. “All roofs have wear and tear, and insurance is not meant to cover such damage that occurs naturally over time.”

“Finally, there certainly was no evidence of malice in either issuing Mr. Griffith’s policy or the handling of his claim to support the punitive damages finding,” Sanders said.

Cox said he believes the totality of USAA’s treatment of Griffith was what prompted the jury’s malice finding.

“Mr. Griffith was a very longtime and loyal customer for 30 years of USAA. It was his first claim ever and they only wanted to pay for a partial roof repair,” Cox said. “As it went along, as he insisted that it be replaced, their position hardened. Their positions were difficult for them to explain.”