Florida Homeowners Insurance Questions, the Loss Settlement Provision, and When is Alleged Underpayment Not a Breach of the Policy?
The Loss Settlement provision is, without a doubt, the most overlooked homeowners insurance policy provision. There are tens of thousands of lawsuits filed every year where the parties dispute what the homeowners insurer owes to the homeowner.
Do you want to know what neither side probably looked at? The Loss Settlement provision – the provision that actually describes the homeowners insurer’s obligation to pay a claim. Read this article to learn more about how this provision could decide your case.
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One of the most important questions in property insurance litigation is whether an insurer can obtain a summary judgment in a damages dispute. Stated otherwise, can an insurer prevail on a summary judgment motion when the insured alleges the insurer underpaid the claim? You might ask, “how is that possible?” How can an insurer and the Judge agree that even if the insurer allegedly underpaid the insured, the insurer did not breach the contract? If you can answer these questions, then you understand the difference between underpayment and breach.
To understand the answers to these questions, you must examine the Florida cases discussing loss settlement provisions. Following are some examples:
1. Slayton v. Universal
Slayton holds that even if an insured allegedly underpaid pursuant to the policy, the insurer could have simultaneously complied with its policy obligations as a matter of law. While Slayton is limited to the facts and statutes at issue in the case, its rationale may be applied to any insurance dispute.
Rather than promote litigation, judges should do what Slayton did and allow the insurer to rely on the insured to present a genuine policy dispute before bringing a lawsuit. In Slayton, the Court held that the insured should have used the benefits the insurer paid to the insurer to repair the home and then submit a supplemental claim to the insurer if the original payment was insufficient. Instead, the insured sued the insurer without attempting to conduct the repairs with the payments provided by the insurer. Ultimately, in Slayton, the Fifth DCA upheld the trial court’s finding that the insurer, by providing the payment to the insured, complied with the policy as a matter of law.
By enforcing the loss settlement provision’s requirements, the Fifth DCA in Slayton held that the insurer did not breach the contract, even if it arguably underpaid the claim.
2. Ceballo v. Citizens
In Ceballo, the insureds alleged that they proved a total loss of Ordinance and Law coverage pursuant to the Valued Policy Law statute and argued the insurer should have paid the coverage. The insureds further claimed that the insurer’s failure to pay the coverage constituted a breach of the contract. The insurer responded that before the insureds could be entitled to this coverage, the policy required the insureds to incur Ordinance and Law damages. To put this into context, the policy and statute at issue in Ceballo provides that the insureds were not entitled to replacement cost coverage until they incurred the damages. Like the Fifth DCA in Slayton, Florida’s Supreme Court in Ceballo determined that the insurer did not breach the contract despite the insureds’ allegations that the insurer underpaid. Thus, the insureds could not present a damages dispute to the jury, and the insurer was therefore entitled to judgment in its favor on that issue.
3. Buckley Towers v. Citizens
Likewise, the Eleventh Circuit in Buckley Towers considered the lower court’s finding that the insured was excused from incurring damages under the policy. Similar to the policy at issue in Ceballo, the policy at issue in Buckley Towers provided that if in insured wants replacement cost coverage, it must incur the damages. If the insured does not incur the damages, the insured can only obtain actual cash value. Despite this policy requirement, the lower court held that the insurer’s alleged underpayment excused the insured’s performance in that regard.
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, determining that the insured could not use the prevention of performance doctrine to avoid a requirement that the damages be incurred. Unlike the lower court, the Eleventh Circuit refused to “rewrite the policy.” The Eleventh Circuit held that the insured was required to make the repairs before he or she would be entitled to the replacement cost coverage. In other words, until the repairs were complete, the insurer was correct in issuing only the coverage for actual cash value. The court found that by using the prevention of performance doctrine, the lower court impermissibly rewrote the policy that was freely negotiated between the parties. Even when facing allegations of underpayment, the Eleventh Circuit determined the insurer did not breach as a matter of law. In short, Buckley Towers, like Ceballo and Slayton, shows that courts must adhere to the loss settlement provisions in a policy.
So what do these cases tell you?
First and foremost, beware when relying heavily on the black letter law in these cases because the statutes and policy forms have changed. Instead of focusing on the holdings of these cases, focus on the courts’ interpretations of the loss settlement provisions. In each case, the court determined that the insureds were not entitled to a trial on damages until they demonstrated compliance with the loss settlement provisions. Second, you must scrutinize your loss settlement provisions, whether you are dealing with a sinkhole claim, water claim, or tile claim, before accepting the opposing party’s allegations as fact. Ultimately, the loss settlement provision may make alleged underpayment a question for the judge and not the jury.
You shouldn’t allow your attorneys to overlook this provision, and you should have systems in place to make sure it isn’t overlooked. Your provision is the same in every case, but it needs to be read in light of the case law.
Don’t trust this type of issue to junior associates. Get your best management and best attorneys together, create a system for ensuring compliance, and never think about it again.
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