Check out one of the most popular articles on homeowners insurance litigation there is. Thousands of people make a living on homeowners insurance claims, but only a small percentage of them understand why homeowners were so successful at litigating these claims. Although these claims are dwindling, many lessons can be learned for the next wave of insurance claims.
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Good morning. I recently spoke with mediator, Robert Daisley, about the current state of sinkhole litigation. Rob is one of the most well respected mediators in Tampa. He is a great mediator because he emphasizes the uncertainties for the parties.
Rob has a strong grasp on the issues and uncertainties in sinkhole cases. Even when the insurer has done everything right in terms of payment and timeliness, Rob is not sure that the insurer will prevail. Why? Because there has been no direct appellate mandate on the proper jury instructions and verdict forms in sinkhole cases. Experienced trial lawyers start their evaluation of a case by crafting their jury instructions. As Rob suggested and as anyone who has handled sinkhole cases should know, judges are far from uniform in agreeing to jury instructions.
While there is plenty of appellate guidance on the issue, that guidance has been twisted and turned into a wide range of jury instructions and verdict forms. Thus, according to Rob, unless a party is prepared to pay its attorneys to litigate at the trial and appellate level, then that party is better off settling the case. The bottom line: knowing how many variations of jury instructions and verdict forms have been issued by the courts, you must be committed to both the trial and appeal to make sure that the court used the right verdict form.
The most critical variation at this time is the burden of proof in a denied sinkhole case. Some judges place the burden of proof on the homeowners to prove sinkhole activity caused the damage, while other judges require the insurers to prove the exclusions caused the damage. This issue is on appeal right now, however, we are months away from a ruling. Rob’s point here is unless you are committed to appealing a problematic verdict form, then trying the case might not be for you.
Another variation in the jury instructions is determining if the verdict form should be limited solely to whether the claim was allegedly underpaid. Some believe the verdict form should consider an insurer’s compliance with the policy and statutes. Others believe the verdict form should should only ask whether the claim was underpaid.
Rob believes that if a party is not committed to trying and appealing these issues, then the party runs the risk of trying the case with unfavorable jury instructions. The following set of verdict forms (check the variations) support his position:
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The inconsistencies in these forms are glaring, and insurers and homeowners alike should hope that the Second DCA narrows the issues in an effort to eliminate these inconsistencies. While many lawyers seem to believe they can prevail despite the verdict form, properly framed questions for the jury to answer are crucial. Kudos to Rob Daisley for stressing how these issues should impact insurers’ and homeowners’ outlooks on trying the cases.
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