The Life and Career of Pete Cardillo : Florida's Bug Lawyer

Starting a solo shop wasn't a cakewalk. For one thing, learning about how the bugs themselves operate, never mind the industry, was a time-consuming task — and it literally gave him nightmares.

"They've infested my life," he laughs. "I live in an old wood frame house in Hyde Park — and I know the way they work. They're evil and ferocious."

He sheepishly admits he subscribes to Pest Control Magazine. He's taped a headline from the trade journal to his computer keyboard: "Termite World."

Cardillo, 48, never dreamed he'd be known as the Bug Lawyer. After high school, he earned an Army ROTC scholarship at the University of South Florida and went on to Columbia Law School. For three years he worked in criminal courts martial in Germany, then moved on to appellate defense in Washington, DC. He soon made his way back to Tampa, signing on with Chicago-based Rudnick and Wolfe (now DLA Piper).

"We specialized in commercial litigation that included a fair amount of construction and real estate," he says.

Cardillo's foray into the termite world started in 1996, after a former client, a developer, called about a possible case.

"They had termite problems on several of their Bay area properties, and it turned out they had contracts with Orkin on all of them," he says. "The things my client told me led me to believe there was some form of malfeasance, some hint of misconduct or at least significant neglect that seemed to be systemic and possibly intentional."

The more Cardillo looked into this case, the stranger it got.

"A termite contract typically includes an annual reinspection," Cardillo explains, "and the law requires that the pest control company prepare a written report upon reinspection that is then given to the customer."

Former Orkin sales reps testified that they routinely forged clients' signatures on reinspection reports, forgoing a return trip to the property to make sure that it was, indeed, pest-free.

"Even as a former prosecutor, I was shocked," says Cardillo.

Orkin insisted the forgeries were isolated incidents perpetrated by rogue employees, but internal memos among high-level executives exposed concern about widespread fraud and theft — including the forging of reinspection reports.

The suit was settled last spring for an undisclosed amount. Cardillo has had many significant settlements, most confidential. However, he recently secured a $2 million settlement in a fraud and racketeering case involving Orkin.

And Orkin isn't the only pest-control giant in Cardillo's sights. He has also clashed with Terminix. Insurance companies are fair game as well.

"We can separately pursue claims against insurance companies based on their commercial policies, so we have two sources of recovery," he says.

Cardillo currently has several dozen active cases — most are multimillion-dollar suits on behalf of developers and condominium associations, as well as a growing number of individual homeowners.

While most of Cardillo's cases are in Florida — where extermination is big business — he plans to expand farther into the "termite belt," which snakes south from Virginia to Texas.

"You think termites are tough characters. Well, they're nothing compared to how mean termite exterminators can be to their own clients," he says.

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