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Florida Homeowners Insurance Claim for Long Term Water Leak Not Excluded as a Matter of Law

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

Overview:

In Price v. Castle Key Indemnity Company, Florida’s Second DCA recently dealt a heavy hit to homeowners insurers’ arguments using the continuous/constant or repeated seepage defense.

Drop of water

 

Facts

The facts in Price were a prime example of a long term water damage insurance claim. The homeowners insurer gathered strong evidence, and was able to show that this leak continued for weeks and weeks without any stoppage. The insurer’s evidence was startling: over a period of more than 30 days, over 195,000 gallons of water escaped from a pipe going to the homeowner’s toilet.  Faced with this evidence, the trial court granted summary judgment for the insurer.

The Second DCA disagreed with the insurer and the trial court. The Second DCA’s reason: the terms “sudden” and “seepage” were “less than clear” when applied to these facts. Accordingly, the Second DCA determined that these words created a latent ambiguity.  The Second DCA instructed the trial court to allow a jury to determine coverage in this case, instead of a judge.

Disappointing Discussion

Although this is the most heavily litigated coverage issue in Florida homeowners insurance, the Second DCA did not take much time to explain its decision.

These long term water damage opinions don’t come often. Usually, claims do not have such egregiously long leaks, or they have some type of dispute on the duration … so they should be determined by a jury. When the rare case like this pops up, you would think the Second DCA would take the chance to explain what types of long term water damage should be covered as a matter of law under these policies; and what types shouldn’t be.

Unfortunately, the Second DCA did not take that opportunity. Moving forward, this leaves many unanswered questions, and a lot of room for interpretation for trial court judges. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were tens of thousands of pending claims with this issue. The parties and lawyers handling those cases don’t seem to have much to work with from that case, unless they are to assume every insurance policy is ambiguous.

Takeaway

In trial court hearings, this Price opinion will give homeowners’ attorneys stronger arguments, but only if the homeowners insurer tries to obtain summary judgment.  Most of these cases don’t go that route.

I would not be surprised to see other DCAs take a different approach than the Second DCA did in Price.  I doubt all courts will be willing to find that every insurance policy is ambiguous as to long term water losses. A case like this is the perfect example of a case where insurers could be granted summary judgment.

We will see how this changes the strategies. Hopefully, we will get some more opinions on this issue soon.


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Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook and Litigation Data Reports:

Before we go on, if you are in the Florida homeowners insurance claims industry and are looking for a guide with the key cases, strategies, laws, attorneys, and adjusters, or if you’re looking for Florida litigation data reports, please visit this page to learn more about our Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook.


Here is a full copy of the order:

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Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims for Water Leaks and Damage, and the Constant or Repeated Seepage Exclusion

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

Overview:

What happens when a homeowners insurance company denies a claim for constant or repeated seepage or leakage?

Generally, homeowners insurers’ personnel will look at the damage and, based on (1) experience or (2) an expert opinion, the insurer will determine that it is long term damage that is not covered.

If a person has a roof leak, pipe break, supply line burst, or something else that she thought happened quickly, then she might think the constant or repeated seepage exclusion is unfair.  Depending on (1) the way that the exclusion is written in the policy and (2) the investigation the homeowners insurer conducted, the homeowner might be right.

In this article, you will see what homeowners insurers need to prove that a water leak and its damage are excluded using the constant or repeated seepage exclusion for long term water damage.

So don’t forget to read all the way to the end, contact me, and subscribe.


Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook and Litigation Data Reports:

Before we go on, if you are in the Florida homeowners insurance claims industry and are looking for a guide with the key cases, strategies, laws, attorneys, and adjusters, or if you’re looking for Florida litigation data reports, please visit this page to learn more about our Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook.


Do you think you need to understand this subject? I’d say you should be an expert on it.  

The most common dispute in the Florida homeowners insurance industry is whether water damage is covered or excluded by homeowners insurance.  Florida is a rainy and humid place, so there is plenty of water damage.  The question is whether the damage is sudden or long-term.  You better know the difference.

How do you find out the difference? Read this article to find out how homeowners insurers must prove that damage was excluded by the constant or repeated seepage exclusion.

The Policy

The exclusion has many variations; however, in general, it excludes long term water damage. With respect to the variations, some of these exclusions expressly provide that the seepage must come from within a plumbing, heating, or air system. Others contain language that excludes the leakage “whether hidden or not.” In addition, some describe the exclude time period as “weeks” or “months” whereas others specifically exclude damage that occurs over a period of more than 14 days.

Hoey v. State Farm

The main case on the issue is the Fourth DCA’s 2008 decision in Hoey v. State Farm, 988 So. 2d 99 (Fla. 4th DCA 2008). In Hoey, the Fourth DCA determined that the evidence in the record was enough to show that the insurer was entitled to a judgment that the damage was long term and, therefore, excluded from insurance coverage. By analyzing the steady increase in the water bills for roughly three months, the insurer was able to show that there was a failure in the nylon of the toilet supply line. Contrary to many of the litigated cases on this provision, this case had enough evidence in the insurer’s favor to allow the trial court to determine the insurance company clearly did not cover the damage.

Key Evidence

In cases where summary judgment is not appropriate, juries must decide whether the evidence shows that the leakage occurred for an excluded time period. Naturally, insureds’ and insurers’ attorneys should pay attention to the following factors to assess what the jury will think of the damage:

1. The Photographs

The photographs tell the story and are typically the most important evidence. Do they show staining and warping? For an insurer, it is going to be hard to convince a jury that the water loss was long term if there is no staining or warping of particle board cabinets. For an insured, if the particle board has rings and rings of deep brown stains and appears to be falling apart, then how can he or she convince a jury that the damage happened from a single leak?

The most important photographs will come from the field adjuster and, if the insurer promptly hired an engineer who quickly visited the property, then the engineer should have good photographs. Because these losses often occur in obscure areas of the property (kitchen cabinets, wall space), an insured generally does not have prior photographs of the damaged areas. Ultimately, the photographs will be the most critical evidence in the case.

2. The Water Bills

The water bills also can help guide the parties’ understanding of what happened. If there was a sudden and extreme toilet leak or pipe burst, then, depending on where the burst was, there may be a huge surge in the water bills. If the bills constantly crept up for a few months, however, that might suggest there was a pinhole leak that allowed water to seep out over a long period of time. According to the Fourth DCA, the water bills in Hoey were sufficient to allow the trial court’s finding that the damage was excluded.

3. The Experts

The experts in this field are very skilled and can provide the parties with highly detailed evaluations of an infinite amount of different types of water losses. Many of the experts I deal with rely on the studies done by Dr. Ralph Moon from HSA Engineers.I have worked with Dr. Moon a great deal. He has published volumes of studies showing what each housing material looks like after it has been exposed to water for days or months. The studies are very intricate and detailed, and, in some cases, can even tell you what temperature the water was in your case. There are several other outstanding experts that rely on Mr. Moon’s studies. I find that a lot of these experts are very good at explaining why a particular type of damage had to have been caused by long term seepage.

Despite having handled well over 100 of these types of cases, I have not had the chance to meet any experts in this area that are hired by insureds and their attorneys. I would like to hear their counterarguments to the very well reasoned theories laid out in the water duration studies I mentioned above.

If you would like a copy of any of Dr. Moon’s articles or the names of any of the other highly qualified experts, please feel free to email me. If you handle these types of cases, I highly recommend reading Dr. Moon’s articles and sharing them with your team as soon as possible. As you know, the experts will be responsible for explaining the issue to the jury.

4. The Nature of the Source

To determine whether the damage was long term, the parties have to understand the nature of the event. Was the leak coming from the roof? If so (and so long as there was not a wind event), the only seepage that could have entered must have been rain and other moisture over a period of time. If a slight “leak” caused a substantial amount of damage, that is a strong example of a long term water loss. Was the leak coming from a deficiency in the shower stall or tub surround? One might logically expect that the damage occurred each time the person showered or took a bath. Understanding the exact source of each portion of the loss is crucial to determining whether the source, by its nature, is something that would happen over time or all at once.

5. The Policy

To evaluate the claim, insurers and insureds must also go to the heart of the issue – the insurance policy. Interestingly, and as mentioned above, these policies have many variations. Not only are the excluded durations different, but the sources of the loss can often be different. For example, some policies’ constant or repeated seepage exclusions may exclude long term seepage coming only from within a plumbing, heating, or air conditioning system. If the loss was long term but not from one of those systems (for example, through the roof), then insureds and insurers might need to reevaluate whether the loss was “sudden” or not, which is also required by virtually every homeowners insurance policy. As also noted above, some policies contain language that excludes the damage “whether hidden or not.” This is arguably the first place to look when evaluating one of these claims.

If you are an insured, a claims handler, or an attorney in this field, then you certainly need to understand the significance of these issues. This exclusion is as litigated as any other exclusion in any type of insurance policy. Although this was not meant to be an exhaustive review of the issues, I hope that it helped you in some way. As noted above, if you want any of the materials from Dr. Moon or you want to discuss any of the other experts in the field, please email me.

Takeaway:

At least 60% of your claims and lawsuits are probably water damage claims. It’s time to approach these on a more global level.

  • What if I told you that you could use a system to search your old claims and cases to determine how much the next case will settle for?
  • What if I told you that you could pay for the legal documents for these claims only once?

Well, its no longer 2001, and these systems are freely available.  If you want to know more about the systems we use, or you want free checklists and guides for handling water damage claims, please message me.


Questions?

If you have any questions about this article or anything else Florida homeowners insurance-related, please contact us.