Tag Archives: Sinkhole

New Florida Federal Court Decides Franqui re Florida Sinkhole Structural Damage Definition and Sinkhole Testing Requirements

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

Are you up to date with the latest Florida Court rulings on homeowners insurance, sinkhole claims, and sinkhole activity?  If you aren’t sure, then make sure to check out this article!


Federal Judge James Whittemore recently joined Judges Radabaugh, Merryday and Lazzara in finding that “structural damage” caused by sinkhole activity must mean more than “damage to the structure caused by sinkhole activity”  This litigation involved an insurance policy that did not incorporate the Senate Bill 408 “structural damage” definition; therefore, the parties disputed whether coverage for sinkhole activity required more than just cracks caused by sinkhole activity.

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More specifically, the Court answered the following questions:

  • Does “structural damage” mean “damage to the structure” or does it mean something more, such as:
  • (1) the five part definition in Fla. Stat. 627.706 (2011);
  • (2) damage to the load bearing portions of the property; or
  • (3) damage that could cause the house to collapse?
  • Does an insurer with a pre-408 policy breach the policy when it does not conduct a full subsidence investigation in accordance with the pre-408 version of Fla. Stat. 627.707?

Structural Damage: The Court ruled “structural damage” in this insurance policy means “damage to the structural components of the building, excluding damage that is cosmetic in nature.”

Testing Requirements: Judge Whittemore also determined that Liberty Mutual did not breach the policy when it did not conduct a “full” subsidence investigation to eliminate sinkhole activity as a cause of the damage.

Analysis:

Here is the complete order:

Download (PDF, 829KB)

Again, we see trial courts construing the words “structural damage” to mean more than what we are used to seeing.  As you know, 20+ courts have determined “structural damage” simply meant “damage to the structure.”  This “lowered” standard resulted in any cracks triggering coverage for “sinkhole loss.”  With the newer interpretations, though, courts are now asking the homeowners’ expert to show that the sinkhole activity is causing substantial damage to important parts of the property.

As you know, this issue only remains relevant to those claims and cases arising under policies without a definition of “structural damage.”  Since late 2012, many of the insurers added a definition and removed all doubt on this issue.  Nevertheless, thousands of cases remain with these pre-408 policies, so these rulings could continue to build substantial momentum for insurers.

Conclusion:

I think the most amazing thing about this line of decisions is that this issue is still relevant in 2014.  Why is the “structural damage” issue still relevant?  If insurers had innovative services in 2006 using the same arguments they had now, they would be done paying the millions it continues to cost to litigate these issues, and the “structural damage” issue would have been irrelevant (one way or the other) 8 years ago.


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A Rare Win Win in Property Insurance as Citizens Settles Portion of Confirmed Sinkhole Claims

Citizens Property Insurance Corporation

What happens when Florida’s Citizens Property Insurance Corporation and a group of Plaintiffs’/Policyholders’ attorneys decide that the litigation just doesn’t make business sense anymore? Read this first of a series on Citizens’s multimillion dollar settlements with plaintiffs’ attorneys to resolve hundreds of sinkhole cases.


Quick Update:

After this article was posted, Citizens settled an additional 300 cases with Thompson Trial Group and 600 cases with Marshall Thomas Burnett.  Make sure to read those articles after you finish this one.

Correction: The Tampa Bay Times is reporting that Citizens may have reported the settlement without having confirmed that the policyholders agreed to it.  For more information on this and other issues relating to Citizens’s legal defenses, see this March 18, 2013 article.

Nevertheless, because it appears the policyholders’ attorneys in this settlement agree this is a good outcome for their clients, there is a good chance that many of these cases will get resolved.  If new information arises, I will update this article.

On March 12, 2014, Citizens announced it will settle 300 policyholders’ confirmed sinkhole claims.  The terms of the settlement include:

  • Citizens agrees to pay for the repairs and stand by the repairs
  • Citizens agrees to allow policyholders to choose their contractors from a pre-approved list
  • Citizens will pay the policyholders’ law firms $2M – $5,000.00 per nonlitigated cases, $10,000.00 per litigated cases

Here is the press release:

Download (PDF, 66KB)

Citizens’ press release applauded coordinating counsel for the settlement.  In the press release, Citizens states that this settlement will save it $30M in legal fees.

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In my opinion, this appears to be a win-win for both parties.  No one can be sure without reviewing the terms of the releases; however, what is clear is that (1) the policyholders will obtain repaired homes and (2) Citizens will be spending its money repairing homes, instead of litigating these issues.  That means the parties achieved what they set out to do.

Although you might argue that this result could have happened sooner, both sides had significant victories over the past year or so, and this allowed each side to modify their position towards the middle.  This settlement shows that both sides had a mutual respect for each other and put Florida’s and the policyholders’ interests ahead of their own. Congratulations to all involved.

This is also a win for litigation project management. Innovative services like THIS are the only way to effectively handle property insurance litigation.  These cases were not that complicated when you approach them categorically.  For insurers with more than 5-10 law firms handling their cases, panel counsel need a coordinating counsel or a software tool that performs the same tasks and oversight. Panel counsel simply do not have the tools or the incentives to make these types of decisions.

Applying litigation project management principles, coordinating counsel and/or equivalent software needs to direct panel counsel by (1) identifying the insurers’ goals with the client, (2) breaking down each stage of litigation, and (3) determining how to optimize the process at each stage (and not waste money).

Coordinating counsel must also identify and automate the routine tasks, and insurers can purchase customized software for litigating property insurance claims in Florida to automate the routine tasks. Otherwise, all the time and money goes towards attorneys and adjuster laboring over routine tasks all day, and there is no time for critical thinking.

As you can see from the Citizens example, when insurers set up the structure to make intelligent results happen, intelligent results happen. Companies that make these tough, innovative decisions will be rewarded.  Companies that punt these tasks to their attorneys without a top-down strategy will waste millions of dollar and hours to achieve less favorable results.

Takeaway:

Citizens did a phenomenal job of embracing litigation project management.  If they would have added the key component of software to the mix, they could have really gained power and control over these cases from the lawyers.  If you want checklists and guides to help you reach results even better than this without spending a fraction of what Citizens spent, please message me.


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Florida’s Second DCA Finds Sinkhole Insurance Claim Neutral Evaluation is Mandatory … All the Time

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

Overview:

Want to read about the definitive appellate decision on sinkhole coverage and neutral evaluation? You have come to the right place.


In Trapeo v. Citizens, the Second DCA recently reminded us that neutral evaluation for sinkhole claims is mandatory regardless of when requested. 

Here is a copy of the order:

Download (PDF, 63KB)

In 2009, Citizens issued the insurance policy at issue to the Plaintiff, Gary Trapeo.  In 2010, he reported a sinkhole claim.  In 2012, he filed a lawsuit against Citizens alleging its repair recommendation was not sufficient to stabilize the property.  In December of 2012 and after the parties engaged in discovery, Citizens requested neutral evaluation.  In addition, Citizens filed a “Notice of Automatic Stay” with the trial court requesting the case be stayed until after the parties participated in neutral evaluation.  Mr. Trapeo objected to the Notice and argued that Citizens, by participating in the litigation for approximately 10 months, waived its right to stay the case and demand neutral evaluation.  The trial court agreed with him and denied Citizens the opportunity to submit the claim to neutral evaluation.

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The Second DCA first addressed whether the 2009 or 2011 version of Fla. Stat. 627.7074 (the neutral evaluation statute) applied by the trial court.  The main difference between the two statutes is that the 2011 version mandates stay of the case and participation in the neutral evaluation process “regardless of when noticed.”  The Second DCA determined the stay portion of the 2011 statute was “procedural” rather than “substantive;” therefore, the 2011 statute must be applied to a lawsuit filed after its effective date.

The Court explained why Citizens could not waive its right to request neutral evaluation:

Citizens correctly argues that neutral evaluation, once requested, is mandatory. The trial court’s determination that neutral evaluation was waived conflicts with the express language of the statute. “Neutral evaluation is available to either party,” “supersedes the alternative dispute resolution process under s. 627.7015,” and is “mandatory if requested by either party.” § 627.7074(2), (3), (4). The statute’s language is compulsory; it repeatedly and almost exclusively directs that acts “shall” occur. There is no waiver provision and no timeframe for requesting neutral evaluation.2 It is an optional but statutorily guaranteed process. That is, once the request for neutral evaluation has been filed with the Department, participation in neutral evaluation is mandatory and guaranteed. See § 627.7074(4); cf.Williams, 62 So. 3d at 1135-36. Certiorari relief is appropriate because the trial court’s order purports to deprive Citizens of a statutory process to which it is entitled resulting in material harm. Cf.Williams, 62 So. 3d at 1136-37. This conclusion is supported by language of the statute applicable at the time the lawsuit was filed. The 2012 statute specifically provides, “Regardless of when noticed, any court proceeding related to the subject matter of the neutral evaluation shall be stayed pending completion of the neutral evaluation and for 5 days after the filing of the neutral evaluator’s report with the court.” § 627.7074(10) (emphasis added); cf. Cruz, 76 So. 3d at 398 n.1 (“We also note that section 627.7074 does not impose a waiver or other penalty when a neutral evaluation is not completed within forty-five days. Its proviso that ‘[n]eutral evaluation shall be conducted as an informal process in which formal rules of evidence and procedure need not be observed,’ § 627.7074(5), suggests that the legislature intended no sanction for failure to strictly adhere to the time period.”). The statute provides neutral evaluation as both a potential precursor to litigation and as a parallel, contemporaneous process. It is not an “either or” or “opt out of litigation” procedure, unlike contractual arbitration provisions. Cf. ch. 682, Fla. Stat. (2011) (applying to those instances where the parties have an arbitration agreement). It is also not a process that occurs as part of a civil proceeding, unlike court-ordered mediation, nor is it a presuit requirement.

In addition, the Second DCA held “the circuit court does not have authority over the neutral evaluation process.  The Department [of Financial Services] does.”  Accordingly, the court determined that only the Department has the power to decide whether a party has waived its right to neutral evaluation.

In addition, the court determined that Citizens correctly invoked the process simply by filing the Notice of Automatic Stay.

In a footnote, the court acknowledged the trial court’s concern that this ruling allows a party to request neutral evaluation on the eve of trial; however, the court responded that “the current language of the statute is clear.”

Thankfully, this issue is now resolved.  By my count, this is now the third time the Second DCA has ruled in an insurer’s favor requiring the parties to participate in neutral evaluation.  I would assume this will be the last.  To summarize, when a party requests neutral evaluation, the case is stayed and the parties must attend neutral evaluation.  There do not appear to be any exceptions.  In addition, if a party thinks there may be an exception, the trial court is not the forum, the Department of Financial Services is.

For more information on sinkhole claims and insurance litigation, feel free to contact me at (813) 513-5440 or email me at [email protected] You can also find several articles addressing the legal issues arising from sinkhole claims here.

Takeaway:

Here is one of the few occasions when plaintiffs’ attorneys failed to properly use litigation project management.  Although they might argue that they had an obligation to fight this issue, the statutes were pretty clear (and the majority of plaintiffs’ attorneys agreed) that neutral evaluation is required when requested.  Plaintiffs’ attorneys are usually the best at making efficient and effective decisions using project management; however, they failed here.

If you want to know more about the remarkable things that are being done to control homeowners insurance litigation, including checklists and guides for sinkhole claims, please message me.


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Florida Homeowners Insurance Questions, the Loss Settlement Provision, and When is Alleged Underpayment Not a Breach of the Policy?

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Overview

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.

Make sure to read until the end because we offer you a free Litigation Report analyzing the ways to improve your case outcomes while paying the least amount possible.


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

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

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.

Questions?

Have any questions about Florida’s homeowners insurers, policies, and claims, please feel free to contact us.


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.

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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

Download (PDF, 13KB)

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

Download (PDF, 46KB)

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

Download (PDF, 96KB)

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.

 Takeaway:

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.

If you want checklists, guides, and legal document templates on the Loss Settlement provision, please message me.


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Testifying to the Facts of Someone Else’s Investigation

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

A very informative article on Examinations Under Oath (“EUOs”) appears in the summer 2013 edition of Litigation Management. The article, written by Tower Hill’s Lincoln LeVarge and Butler Pappas’s Gerald Albrecht, can be accessed here:

http://www.litigationmanagementmagazine.com/litigationmanagementmagazine/summer_2013#pg1

The most interesting takeaway from the article that I want to emphasize is that insurers may have to submit representatives to testify about facts that attorneys obtain through the EUO process, especially if the insurer relies on those facts to issue a coverage determination.

This consequence of the EUO process is often overlooked. As you know, an insurer often retains an attorney to conduct to an EUO and relies on the information obtained during the EUO. If the case proceeds to litigation, the insured’s attorney will typically request that the insurer produce representatives to testify regarding how the EUOs led to coverage determinations, regardless of the insurers’ representatives’ level of involvement in the EUOs and without providing privileged information. A representative who can demonstrate active involvement in the coverage determination, as well as a strong grasp of the EUO results, will present well during the deposition and to a jury.

A similar situation is when insurers retain experts to investigate claims during the coverage stage. Often, expert reports are so detailed that claim examiners do not confirm the findings with the expert. If the case proceeds to litigation, however, an insured’s attorney will try to determine to what extent the insurer relied on the expert. Indeed, when an insured’s attorney conducts the deposition of the claims examiner, the attorney will typically ask about every fact surrounding the coverage process, including whether the representative called the expert to inquire about the report. Like the EUO process, if a claims examiner can testify that he or she spoke with the expert about the report, then the insurer’s reliance on the expert will be more credible. This is true for long term water claims, sinkhole claims, and, most importantly, late notice cases.

These are simple but helpful points to think about. Of course, insurers are entitled to a variety of privileges against disclosure of certain aspects of the coverage process, and I will discuss that in great detail in future posts. Privileges aside, all parties involved in a coverage investigation should still be aware that someone may ultimately have to testify testify to the facts supporting the defenses. If those facts involve an insurer’s reliance on his or her attorney and expert, then a claims representative should try to be able to testify why such reliance was reasonable.


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

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

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.

Questions?

Have any questions about Florida’s homeowners insurers, policies, and claims, please feel free to contact us.

 

Florida Homeowners Insurance Litigation Update: Tampa Sinkhole Insurance Claims: Verdict Forms in Sinkhole Trials

Overview:

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.

Make sure to read to the end of this article so you can apply for our free Litigation Report.  By giving us that moment of your time, you will receive a free comprehensive analysis and sets of solutions to bring you power and control over your homeowners insurance litigation cases.


Getting Started

New to the First Party Property Insurance Blog? Take five minutes to find the answers to your insurance questions by clicking here.


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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:

Download (PDF, 102KB)

Download (PDF, 96KB)

Download (PDF, 31KB)

Download (PDF, 87KB)

Download (PDF, 94KB)

Download (PDF, 131KB)

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Download (PDF, 131KB)

Download (PDF, 414KB)

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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.

So what went wrong here?  

There’s only one way to find out, by contacting me and subscribing to First Party Property Insurance Blog.

Takeaway:

If you want the legal forms and checklists to make your desired jury forms a reality, please message me.


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Does a Defense Based on an Insured’s Failure to Submit to an Examination Under Oath Require the Insurer to Show Prejudice?

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

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*April 30, 2014 Update: I want you to read this article because it has the best explanation of the hotly debated condition precedent vs. condition subsequent issue on this site; however, when you are finished, you need to read this article to learn about the latest developments from courts evaluating what type of condition the EUO provision is.*

If an EUO does not happen, can the insurer move for summary judgment and get an order by simply showing that the insurer requested the EUO and it did not happen? In other words, can an insurer obtain a summary judgment on that issue without pleading and proving prejudice? Yes and no, depending on where in Florida you live.

picture from http://www.florida-lawblog.com/2010/05/examination-under-oath-euo.html

The Fifth DCA is the DCA making some waves. While old news, the Fifth DCA in State Farm Ins. Co. v. Curran held that a failure to appear at a compulsory medical examination was a breach, but maybe not a material breach because the insurer did not plead and prove prejudice. 83 So. 3d 793 (Fla. 5th DCA 2011). Following that decision, the Fifth DCA issued another opinion denying an insurer summary judgment based on an insured’s alleged failure to submit to an EUO. Whistler’s Park, Inc. v. FIGA, 90 So. 3d 841 (Fla. 5th DCA 2012). In Whistler’s Park, Inc., the Fifth DCA considered the insured’s arguments that it responded to the insurer’s EUO request by naming a corporate representative to testify at the EUO and promising to produce the documents. The insurer had previously asked the insured to call the insurer to schedule the EUO. Leading up to the summary judgment hearing, the insured continued to offer to submit to the EUO, but did not call to schedule. The Fifth DCA once again held that the insurer’s failure to plead and prove prejudice thwarted its ability to obtain summary judgment on the EUO provision, which they called a condition subsequent. The Fifth DCA said that to show a breach of a condition subsequent was material, the insurer needs to plead and prove prejudice. So we know where the Fifth DCA stands: an insurer must plead and prove prejudice.

No other DCA has expressly taken this position. The Third DCA, however, has denied an insurer’s motion for summary judgment on the issue when counsel for the insurer asked improper questions to an insured that the insured refused to answer. De Leon v. Great American Assur. Co., 78 So. 3d 585 (Fla. 3d DCA 2011).

The Fourth, Fifth, and Second DCAs all have opinions suggesting there is no need to plead and prove prejudice. The Fourth DCA’s decision in Goldman v. State Farm suggests that an insurer does not need to plead prejudice to obtain summary judgment in that jurisdiction. 660 So. 2d 300 (Fla. 4th DCA 1995). However, the Fifth DCA in Curran suggested that a portion of the Goldman decision considered the prejudice issue when it discussed how remanding the case to proceed with the EUO would be fruitless because two years had passed since commencement of the suit. Insurers often point to two other decisions suggesting that prejudice does not need to be pled and proven to obtain summary judgment in the Second and Fifth DCAs. See Amica Mutual Ins. Co. v. Drummond, 970 So. 2d 456 (Fla. 2d DCA 2007); Starling v. Allstate Floridian Ins. Co., 956 So. 2d 511 (Fla. 5th DCA 2007).

So the answer to the question posed is, once again, that it appears to depend on the jurisdiction. In November of 2012, the Florida Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Curran. I am not sure when to expect the Florida Supreme Court to issue the order but hopefully it will shed some light on whether the Fifth DCA is right, or whether the issue will return to a bright line rule. Until the Supreme Court issues its opinion, it might be best to plead and prove prejudice just to be safe.

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

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

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.

Questions?

Have any questions about Florida’s homeowners insurers, policies, and claims, please feel free to contact us.

Bankruptcy and Florida Homeowners Insurance Lawsuits and the Impact of Judicial Estoppel


Although Todd Legal, P.A. has built a system to automatically analyze and produce this result for those “in the know” using CaseGlide’s Litigation Control System, this defense is still unknown to most people handling these claims.

Do you want to learn about one of the most powerful defenses a homeowners insurer has against a homeowner?  Do you want to learn about a defense that the majority of homeowners insurers do not know even exist?  Then read this article to learn more about the doctrine of judicial estoppel.


First Party Property Insurance Blog is Proud to Announce our New E-Book: the Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook.

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  • the 6 Key Statutes You Need to Know to Master Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims, including Practice Tips and Cases to Know for handling each statute
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*April 30, 2014 Update: this has been one of the most popular posts on the blog.  I have heard about many carriers having success with this defense, and I have been happy to help them obtain these results.  

Make sure to read all the way to the end of this post.  I have included a link to Todd Legal, P.A.’s website outlining how carriers efficiently guarantee they always use this defense when the facts and data support it.*

If an insured has filed for bankruptcy, does it have any impact on a pending lawsuit for property damage against an insurance company? Yes, and it could result a complete defense to liability or a substitution of the trustee for the insured.

When an insured files for bankruptcy, he or she is required to disclose all pending claims to the bankruptcy court. In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the bankruptcy trustee gains ownership of all claims. Other types of bankruptcy can be different in that regard. Ultimately, when someone goes bankrupt, the trustee gains the standing to sue and can pursue any claims the debtor had or may have. The trustee’s goal is to make any recovery part of the bankrupt estate so that the creditors can try to recoup their losses.

Judicial estoppel is a doctrine that comes into play when an insured fails to disclose a claim to the bankruptcy court. If the insured’s bankruptcy is confirmed without disclosing a pending claim, it could be said that the insured successfully maintained the position that there was no claim in the bankruptcy court. By doing so, the insured is judicially estopped from maintaining a different position in the case against the insurer. Blumberg v. USAA Casualty Ins. Co., 790 So. 2d 1066 (Fla. 2001).  Judicial estoppel on this issue applies in every southern state except Tennessee.  See http://www.deflaw.com/articles/the-property-corner-question-of-the-month-can-an-insurer-defend-a-denial-of-a-claim-for-when-the-insureds-damaged-property-was-not-listed-in-the-insureds–bankruptcy-petition-.

Each party should pay close attention to the timeline and the bankruptcy disclosures.  If the insured has not informed the bankruptcy court, the court with the property claim might request the parties to notify the bankruptcy court to assess the trustee’s intentions.  See http://www.propertyinsurancecoveragelaw.com/uploads/file/Hadden.pdf.

Each case is different but this defense is something worth looking into very early in each case.  The trial courts are very receptive when it comes to having the power to enforce fairness.  Further, I am sure each party would prefer to find out early if one of the parties is going to be substituted out, thereby changing the whole makeup of the case.


Want to Guarantee You Never Miss this Defense Again? Hire Todd Legal, P.A.

How can you make sure that every adjuster and every attorney past, present, and future check to see if the insured went bankrupt and if he no longer owns the claim he is suing you for?  Will an email work?  No. New adjusters and attorneys will never get it.  Will a note to the file work?  Come on, give me a break.

But guess what will work?  If you shift your communication and case strategies from out of emails and Word documents and into a web-based project management portal.  Then, you can make sure every adjuster and every attorney on every case is asked whether the plaintiff is bankrupt, and you have to go no further than two clicks online to find the answer for your specific case.  I offer innovative services and software that can automatically implement the strategy changes to be consistent with the information in this article.  If you want to know more about how I can help your company or firm ensure that your strategies are up-to-date and complied with by all of your colleagues and vendors, then contact me.  Furthermore, if you want a litigation project manager with a powerful software tool that allows your attorneys to draft top-down approved legal documents in every case with the click of a button, then read more about my services here.

The more you automate these routine tasks, the more time you will have to proactively manage your claims and cases.

 


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Florida Homeowners Insurance Sinkhole Claims Analysis: Sinkholes and MSJs on the Stabilization Repairs (Pre-408 Policies)

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Sponsor the First Party Property Insurance Blog

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Its important to note that we are looking for sponsors and guest contributors interested in getting exposure to our thousands of loyal readers and subscribers.

Do you want your company’s name sent to the inbox of insurance company executives and adjusters, sent to thousands of attorneys, and shared with all of the largest insurance consulting companies?

Of course you do. Reach out to us and we can tell you how to reach the tens of thousands of people in the First Party Property Insurance Blog Community.

*April 30, 2014: as a result in the decline in sinkhole claims, there have not been many developments on the contract for repair requirement since I first won this issue over a year ago.  

Insurance Policy

Insurance Policy

In a sinkhole case, can an insurer win a summary judgment that the insured is not entitled to coverage for subsurface repairs, even though that insured has entered into a contract for stabilization repairs in accordance with recommendations of the engineer the insured retained? Yes, even if the policy did not incorporate the statutory amendments from Senate Bill 408.

I previously obtained a summary judgment (and at least one other Judge in Hillsborough county has adopted the same position) in a Hillsborough county case where the Court ruled that:

if the insured wanted coverage for the cost of stabilization repairs, the policy and applicable statutes required the insured to enter into a contract for stabilization repairs that was in accordance with the recommendations of the engineer selected or approved by the engineer retained by the insurer.

The Court determined that, although the insured had entered into a contract for repair in accordance with her engineer’s recommendations, she still was not entitled to any coverage for stabilization repairs.

The Court cited five reasons:

1. Fla. Stat. 627.707 (5) (a) (2005) requires the coverage to be the cost of repairs recommended by the insurer’s engineer:

“if a sinkhole loss is verified, the insurer shall pay to stabilize the land and building and repair the foundation in accordance with the recommendations of the professional engineer as provided under s. 627.7073, and in consultation with the policyholder, subject to the coverage and terms of the policy.”

The engineer provided under Fla. Stat. 627.7073 is (usually) the engineer retained by the insurer; therefore, Fla. Stat. 627.707 (5) (a) requires the insurer to provide coverage in accordance with its engineer’s specifications.

2. Fla. Stat 627.7073 (1) (c) (2006) provides a presumption of correctness for purposes of relying on the insurer’s retained engineer’s recommendations:

“The respective findings, opinions, and recommendations of the professional engineer or professional geologist as to the cause of distress to the property and the findings, opinions, and recommendations of the professional engineer as to land and building stabilization and foundation repair shall be presumed correct.”

The Court understood that this was not a presumption in evidence terms; however, it was a presumption that made sense in combination with Fla. Stat. 627.707 (5) (2005) and the policy form.

3. The first half of Fla. Stat. 627.707 (5) (b) (2005) limits coverage for stabilization repairs until the insured enters into the contract for stabilization repairs covered by the insurer:

“The insurer may limit its payment to the actual cash value of the sinkhole loss, not including underpinning or grouting or any other repair technique performed below the existing foundation of the building, until the policyholder enters into a contract for the performance of building stabilization or foundation repairs. After the policyholder enters into the contract, the insurer shall pay the amounts necessary to begin and perform such repairs as the work is performed and the expenses are incurred. … “

4. The second half of Fla. Stat. 627.707 (5) (b) (2005) provides insureds with recourse in the event the stabilization repairs recommended by the insurer’s engineer are not sufficient:

“If repair covered by a personal lines residential property insurance policy has begun and the professional engineer selected or approved by the insurer determines that the repair cannot be completed within the policy limits, the insurer must either complete the professional engineer’s recommended repair or tender the policy limits to the policyholder without a reduction for the repair expenses incurred.”

5. The policy properly incorporated these provisions.

Other Notes

The Court had actually ruled against this same argument weeks before this hearing; however, when presented with a complete understanding of the statutory framework, the Court agreed that the statutes and policy require an insured to enter into a contract in accordance with the insurer’s retained engineer’s stabilization repair plan if he or she wants that coverage.

We also argue that the following two cases suggest that an insurer should be entitled to summary judgment on the cosmetic repairs when an insured has not entered into a compliant contract for stabilization repairs:

Ceballo v. Citizens, 967 So. 2d 811 (Fla. 2007) and

Slayton v. Universal Property and Casualty Ins. Co., 103 So. 3d 934 (Fla. 5th DCA 2013).

We read these cases as supporting the proposition that, without the subsurface repairs, any dispute on the estimated cosmetic damages is simply premature. The insured should be giving the insurer the opportunity to coordinate performance of the stabilization repairs, then inspect the property after those repairs are complete, and then issue any supplemental payment for additional damages that might be necessary. Although the provisions at issue in Slayton and Ceballo are not identical to the sinkhole loss provisions, the sinkhole loss settlement provisions also indicate that additional damages may occur after the repairs and there may be more coverage available.

I’d be happy to provide you with copies of the orders or anything else you might need in regards to these issues.

Sinkhole Formation

Sinkhole Formation

 

Takeaway:

Do you want forms and checklists to streamline the process of obtaining these results?  If so, message me today.

Did this Article Answer Your Homeowners Insurance Question?

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Waiver and Estoppel in Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook
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Overview:

Why is it that homeowners insurers have to wait until its too late until they find out that the homeowners have evidence to show there may be a defense for waiver and estoppel?  First, read this article to understand what waiver and estoppel is and how it is used in Florida homeowners insurance litigation.  Second, scroll to the bottom of this article to set up a free meeting with our professionals to provide you with a free Litigation Analysis that will explain how and why routine issues like these should never be noticed too late again.


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.


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Update: this is one of the most important articles on this blog to read, especially for newer attorneys and adjusters. I have helped many carriers implement protocols for ensuring that everyone knows about waiver and estoppel and to help create tools to automate the process avoiding one of these costly mistakes. You have got to understand all of these cases if you are going to litigate these cases.

Make sure to read all the way to the end of this post to learn how I propose making sure carriers cheaply guarantee they avoid waiving and being estopped from litigation defenses.*

In my experience, when I am confronted with insureds’ attorneys’ argument that the insurer was waived or estopped from asserting a defense, I know I have a good defense. For anyone who does not know, insureds’ attorneys almost always argue that some act by an insurer constituted a waiver of a particular defense. Knowing exactly what will be argued and how to respond can be the difference between winning and losing, as there are great cases that outline exactly how to respond to these arguments.

The Basics

To have waiver, you have to have (1) the existence at the time of the alleged waiver of a right; (2) the actual or constructive knowledge of that right; and (3) the intention to relinquish that right. See Leonardo v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 675 So. 2d 17, 178 (Fla. 4th DCA 1996). Other than promissory estoppel, there is no creation of coverage by estoppel in Florida. See Doe v. Allstate Ins. Co., 653 So. 2d 371 (Fla. 1995). To have estoppel you must have (1) a representation as to a material fact that is contradicted by a later asserted position; (2) reliance on that representation; and (3) a change in position detrimental to the party relying on the representation and caused by the representation. See Lloyds Underwriters at London v. Keystone Equip. Fin. Corp., 25 So. 3d 89, 93 (Fla. 4th DCA 2009).

As noted below, unless you have a legal defense based on the nature of the defense provision being asserted, pay close attention to whether the party claiming the estoppel or waiver has actually presented evidence to support each of these elements.

Some Defenses Simply Cannot be Waived

An insurer can allegedly waive or be estopped from asserting a defense to an otherwise covered claim, but an insured cannot gain through estoppel or waiver a coverage that it never had. See generally Unijax, Inc. v. Factory Ass’n, 328 So. 2d 448, 455 (Fla. 1st DCA 1976). The Fourth DCA in Lloyds Underwriters at London v. Keystone Equip. Fin. Corp. provided one of the more detailed outlines of the distinction between what can and cannot be waived. 25 So. 3d 89, 93 (Fla. 4th DCA 2009). The Keystone decisions suggests that if a claim is specifically covered but was not covered for some other reason, then the insurer must timely assert that other reason when it becomes aware of its existence. In that case, you would not be re-writing the policy to provide coverage; instead, you would be rewriting the policy to avoid forfeiture. An example of something that cannot be waived is the policy limit. Nationwide Mut. Fire Ins. Co. v. Voigt, 971 So. 2d 239, 242 (Fla. 2d DCA 2008). Another example of something that cannot be waived is additional coverage provided by an endorsement that was not issued. See AIU Ins. Co. v. Block Marina Investment, Inc., 544 So. 2d 998 (Fla. 1989). Further, a policy period is not something that can be waived. U.S. Fidelity and Guar. Co. v. American Fire and Indem. Co., 511 So. 2d 624 (1987).

In sum, I think of it as follows: if deleting the provision with the defense at issue would leave a blank page without any coverage (policy period, policy limit, and I would argue, the structure covered), then it cannot be waived. If deleting the provision with the defense at issue would still leave provisions that provided coverage, then there is at least an argument that it can be waived, unless that provision is an essential part of how the coverage is distributed.

The Evidence of Waiver or Estoppel Must Be More Than an Inference

It is important to point out for the Court if the insureds’ attorney is only suggesting that there was waiver, rather than showing evidence of waiver and specific reliance on a specific position that later changed. Otherwise, an insured simply alleging that the reliance was reasonable without evidence of the same should not overcome a summary judgment on waiver or estoppel grounds See generally Reliance Mut. Life Ins. Co. of Ill. v. Booher, 166 So. 2d 222 (Fla. 2d DCA 1964); Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida, Inc. v. Ming, 579 So. 2d 771 (Fla. 5th DCA 1991); Carneiro Da Cunha v. Standard Fire Ins. Company/Aetna Flood Ins. Program, 129 Fl. 3d 581 (11th Cir. 1997); Unijax, Inc., 328 So. 2d at 455.

Timing to Assert the Defense

Attorneys representing insureds also will argue that the insurer waited too long to assert the defense. One example is Johnson v. Life Insur. Co. of Georgia, where the Florida Supreme Court imputed an agent’s knowledge to the insurer to prohibit the insurer from later asserting a defense based on misrepresentation in the application. 52 So. 2d (Fla. 1951). The counterargument for an insurer can be that the insurer did not have knowledge of the misrepresentation or defense until more recently, and then it acted promptly on the defense at that time. See United Services Automobile Association v. Clarke, 957 So. 2d 554 (Fla. 4th DCA 2000).

The following link from the Butler Pappas website has some great cases regarding when late might not be too late to assert a coverage defense: http://www.butlerpappas.com/512.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the case law suggests that insureds, insurers, and their attorneys should all be armed with the information they need to make sure that all bases are covered. For every argument, there is a counterargument. Without a comprehensive understanding of these issues (and the vast array of waiver and estoppel issues not addressed in this post), it could be easy to get tripped up in a hearing on these issues. The best you can do is learn the nuances, or ask someone who already has.

*April 30, 2014 Update: How does Todd Legal, P.A. prevent these mistakes from becoming too costly*

How can you make sure that every adjuster and every attorney past, present, and future check to see if there were actions or omissions that may constitute waiver and estoppel of an otherwise solid defense? Will an email work?  No. New adjusters and attorneys will never get it. Will a note to the file work?  Come on, give me a break.

But guess what will work?  If you shift your communication and case strategies from out of emails and Word documents and into a web-based project management portal.  Then, you can make sure every adjuster and every attorney on every case is asked whether there may be a waiver or estoppel issue, and you have to go no further than two clicks online to find the answer for your specific case.  What does this do?  Saves you a ton of money.  Instead of finding that out after your summary judgment or trial, Todd Legal, P.A. automatically embeds this question into every case to limit the surprises and reduce the costs resulting from a coverage decision error.

I offer innovative services and software that can automatically implement the strategy changes to be consistent with the information in this article.  If you want to know more about how I can help your company or firm ensure that your strategies are up-to-date and complied with by all of your colleagues and vendors, then contact me.  Furthermore, if you want a litigation project manager with a powerful software tool that allows your attorneys to draft top-down approved legal documents in every case with the click of a button, then read more about my services here.

The more you automate these routine tasks, the more time you will have to proactively manage your claims and cases.

Takeaway:

We have actually made these issues a “fill-in-the-blank” and “check-the-box” evaluation on our web-based software, CaseGlide.  You should, too.  Message me if you need any help turning the waiver and estoppel evaluation into a structured system to save costs and obtain better results.


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