Florida’s Fifth DCA Rules that Homeowners Insurer Does Not Have to Pay Attorneys’ Fees When it Flips Sinkhole Coverage Decision After Lawsuit

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

 Overview:

According to Florida’s Fifth DCA, a homeowners insurer can reverse its position in a sinkhole case and still not be required to pay attorneys’ fees.  Read more about Omega Insurance Company v. Johnson to find out how Omega perfectly handled a disputed sinkhole claim.


 

In Johnson v. Omega Insurance Company, Florida’s Fifth DCA held that it is possible for a homeowners insurer to make a mistake in a sinkhole case and still not have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees.  I include a full copy of the opinion at the end of this post.

Facts

Omega, a Tower Hill company, followed the statutes from the beginning to end. Relying on a report from a professional engineering and geology firm, Omega initially denied the sinkhole claim. The homeowner hired an attorney, and that attorney hired an engineer to contradict Omega’s decision. According to the homeowner’s engineer, Omega’s engineer may have been wrong – there may have been sinkhole activity causing damage.

Instead of providing this report to Omega and allowing Omega to make a decision based on the new information, the homeowner’s attorney sued Omega, and then provided the report to Omega in discovery. As discussed below, Omega was entitled to rely on its engineering and geology firm’s report.

In response to the homeowner’s lawsuit, Omega submitted the case to neutral evaluation (which we know is mandatory), and the neutral evaluator sided with the homeowner – sinkhole activity may be the cause of the damage. In response to the neutral evaluator’s opinion, Omega agreed to comply with the neutral evaluator, accepted coverage, and tendered the policy benefits to the homeowner.

Now that there was no dispute, the homeowner made her next move: a motion for confession of judgment and attorneys’ fees.

Holding

The Fifth DCA determined Omega did everything right. By complying with every Florida statute for sinkhole claims, Omega did not do anything that wrongfully led the homeowner to resort to litigation. Accordingly, Omega did not have to pay the homeowner’s attorneys’ fees.

Takeaway

As you know, the homeowners insurers that are still litigating sinkhole cases rely very heavily on these arguments. In short, the argument is that the insurer is entitled to rely on its expert absent any competing reports.  When you combine that presumption with the confession of judgment doctrine, insurers believe that they should never have to pay attorneys’ fees when a homeowner’s attorney hides a report that could have led to no lawsuit in the first place.

You can bet these insurers are relieved that their hard work paid off in this case. With hundreds of thousands of dollars per case looming over every adjuster’s head on every case, a decision the other way would have been tough for these insurers to endure.

Of course, this outcome could have been different for a number of reasons- what if the homeowner did not have the report before filing the lawsuit?  Most homeowners’ attorneys would not make this same mistake today.

The Second DCA in Colella v. State Farm has a similar holding for insurers to rely on.  In Johnson, the Fifth DCA called Colella and Johnson “strikingly similar.”

For those remaining sinkhole cases (many have settled), homeowners insurers’ attorneys will have another tool in their arsenal.

The Big Takeaways

With sinkhole claims dwindling, the big takeaway here is that this logic can be applied to other types of insurance claims.  Johnson stands for the longstanding Florida proposition that homeowners need to give insurers a chance to fully evaluate the claim instead of “hiding the ball.” The sinkhole statutes may provide an added level of protection – the presumption of correctness – but the arguments in this case are undoubtedly applicable to any other case where the homeowner withholds information in her possession before she files the lawsuit.

Additionally, if you have been following along, you may have noticed that this is the third big sinkhole case in favor of homeowners insurers in the last two weeks. If you missed the first two, you better read them here:

Contract for Repairs Argument Upheld

2011 Statutory Structural Damage Definition Applies to Policies Issued After Senate Bill 408’s Effective Date


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And here is the complete copy of the order:

Download (PDF, 78KB)