Heather Isringhausen Gvillo Feb. 17, 2015, 8:53am

A couple alleging they were denied insurance coverage after their rental property was burglarized while under construction seeks to strike the defendants’ jury demand, saying jurors can only serve as advisors in cases involving insurance coverage for theft.

Plaintiffs George N. Skidis Jr. and Maria C. Skidis, doing business as Varski Properties, filed the lawsuit on Oct. 15 against Country Mutual Insurance Company, Country Casualty Insurance Company, Country Insurance & Financial Services, Country Companies and Mark Wessel – claim specialist – for breach of contract regarding their insurance policy.

According to the complaint, the defendants executed an insurance policy in April 2007 covering the Skidis’s rental dwellings on Westwood Drive in Cahokia. Then on Oct. 15, 2013, the covered property, which was under construction, was burglarized.

The complaint states that in addition to the theft of building materials installed on the premises, the theft of copper plumbing allowed more than 45,000 gallons of water to run freely through the dwelling and cause additional damage.

Had the property not been damaged, it would have been ready for rental in 15 days, making $9,000 per year, the suit states.

The plaintiffs claim the defendant companies sent Wessel to inspect the damages, but he failed to take any measurements or attempt to write an estimate of damages during his inspection. Shortly after, the plaintiffs were denied coverage.

The plaintiffs say the defendants denied their theft claim despite the police report, instead calling it vandalism, which is subject to an exception in the insurance policy because the property had been vacant for more than 60 days prior to the incident. The plaintiffs said they believe the insurance companies purposely misidentified the incident as vandalism in order to avoid fulfilling their contractual obligations.

On Jan. 9, the plaintiffs filed a motion to strike the defendants’ jury demand in regards to counts II and III of the complaint.

In regards to Count II, they argue that “issues involving questions of law, such as ‘vexatious and unreasonable’ refusal to pay and delay in paying, are solely for the Circuit Court Judge, and are expressly removed from, and not accorded to, lay jurors’ consideration.”

As for Count III, the plaintiffs argue that jurors can only serve as advisors in an insurance coverage dispute involving legal definitions of theft or water damage for the plaintiffs and vandalism for the defendant, which would be “superfluous” in the case.

The plaintiffs also agreed to dismiss Wessel on Jan. 9, saying that the defendant could be dismissed without prejudice under Count II and Count III. However, they argue that Wessel should remain a defendant in regards to Count I of the complaint.

Wessel is named a co-defendant as an employee of his co-defendant County Casualty Insurance Company, making both defendants liable under the allegations named in Count I. Specifically, Count I alleges Wessel breached the insurance policy contract when he failed to conduct the required “thorough and complete” inspection and investigation at the site, the plaintiffs claim.

The plaintiffs seek reimbursement of more than $67,800 in damages, plus a 5 percent debris removal expense of $9,000, lost rents of $9,000, a statutory penalty of $60,000, attorney’s fees, costs of litigation and interest.

Circuit Judge William Mudge scheduled a hearing for Feb. 26 at 1 p.m.

William S. Daniel of Daniel Law Offices in Edwardsville represents the plaintiffs.

Christopher B. Bortz and Lucas J. Dalton of Neville, Richards & Wuller in Belleville represents Wessel and Country Casualty Insurance Company.

Madison County Circuit Court case number 14-L-1407

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