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Florida Homeowners Insurance Analysis: Problems and Solutions for Assignments of Benefits and Water Remediation Companies

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

Overview:

As we have said several times in the past here at First Party Property Insurance Blog, water damage claims are the most common type of Florida homeowners insurance claim.


Johnson Strategies once again delivered a fantastic post on the Florida Homeowners Insurance Industry.  This one is titled “Water Extraction: Florida’s Biggest Cost Driver?”

To summarize, Johnson delivers some terrific insight on how seemingly slight “tweaks” to an average water damage insurance claim payout can lead to hundreds of millions of additional homeowners insurer liability. In this article, Johnson also focused on how prevalent these “tweaks” are when the water damage claim involves a restoration contractor with an assignment of benefits.

As you know, in this article on Water Damage Claims, First Party Property Insurance Blog discussed various coverage issues with water damage claims. We also looked into Hail Claims, which make up a small but increasing share of water damage claims (not all hail claims involve ensuing water damage).  These two First Party Property Insurance Blog articles focused on coverage for these types of claims; however, Johnson’s article urges us to focus on the actual claim payouts when the claims are covered.

A Typical AOB Claim

As Johnson discussed, the Florida water remediation/restoration/extraction/assignment of benefits industry (yes, people use any and all of these terms to describe this industry) involves thousands, and probably tens of thousands, of fact patterns similar to this:

  • Plumber Repair: a homeowner calls a plumber to repair a water leak;
  • Referral: the plumber repairs the leak and recommends the homeowner contact a restoration company to make the repairs;
  • Assignment of Benefits (AOB): in exchange for doing the repairs at little or no cost to the homeowner, the restoration company requests the homeowner to assign the company the right to pursue the insurance claim against the insurance company (as assignment of benefits);
  • Damages Dispute: the restoration company and the insurance company disagree regarding the cost to repair the homeowner’s property, and the difference can be as little as $500 or as much as $50,000.00;
  • Lawsuit: the restoration company files a lawsuit against the insurance company and demands “proper” payment (as the restoration company sees it), and thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees and costs at the outset.

Although it may sound like a reasonable process, no one can deny that over the past few years these claims have skyrocketed without any objective justification.

If you are not familiar with how big of a role these claims play in Florida homeowners insurance, don’t worry, we got you.  Here is one of the most detailed reports on water damage claims from Citizens in 2012.  This will help you understand the sheer number of water damage claims Florida’s homeowners insurers face.

Download (PDF, 757KB)

The AOB Problem

A Few Hundred Dollars Here and There Adds Up

So why is this such an important problem?

Johnson Strategies estimates that this industry’s excessive charges for bursting pipe cases alone could cost insurers $150M per year. That does not include the actual extra repair payouts, public adjuster fees, plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees, defense attorneys’ fees, and vendor fees. These amounts probably dwarf that $150M annual figure.

In addition, if you compare certain parts of Florida to other parts of Florida, this AOB process noted above is closely associated with an approximately $5,000.00 increase in costs per claim, and don’t compare Florida to any other state, because there is no comparison. In other words, this is a problem because for some reason Tampa and South Florida are the only targets.  The other areas must be doing something right.

Lastly, the article reminds us about what we learned from this video about AOB insurance fraud and how much insurance fraud could pervade this assignment of benefit process.

All of this suggests Florida homeowners insurers are losing control of their ability to efficiently resolve these claims.

Ultimately, the article concluded by urging the legislature to focus on fixing this problem.  As you may recall, the Homeowners Insurance Bill of Rights Working Group tried, but failed, to place strong prohibitions on assignment of benefits for insurance claims.

Lawyers and Courts are No Help

Lawyers and Courts have not systematically defeated this issue, but from what I hear, they are all going to keep trying.

Up until now, it has been tough for Florida’s homeowners insurers to commit to paying tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to try a case when they can settle it for less than $10,000.00.  As Johnson Strategies points out, this willingness to compromise has added up to millions upon millions in additional recovery for the restoration industry and its attorneys.

Why settle?  The better question today, in this current legal climate, is “why not?” If a Florida homeowners’ insurer has a good case it wants to try, it will have to spend at least $50,000.00 to try the case unless it is using our proprietary software CaseGlide, and even the best cases may not be enough to convince a jury more than 70% of the time.  If the jury finds that the homeowners insurer undervalued the claim by $1.00, the Court could have to award the restoration company’s attorney hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

In summary, you have two main contributors

1. the lack of any meaningful legislation,

2. the cost to defend these cases with routine and manual legal work, on a case-by-case basis, exceeds the cost to resolve them.

Conclusion

As Johnson Strategies said, until the legislation comes (if ever), Florida homeowners insurers must use their power to take control today.

Insurers should not lie and convince themselves that powerful global defenses suddenly exist. Insurers should not continue paying millions of dollars to create arguments that have no statistically-justifiable results. So long as the law and insurance policies are the way they are (as I understand them), most of these cases are going to have to go to a jury trial if the insurer wants to prove its case.

What can insurers control?  Their costs to get these results.  No matter what you hear, these claims and cases aren’t going away.  The only way to address them will be from the top.  Insurers must use their power to take control of this process by demanding efficient legal services that produce better results at a fraction of the costs.  Otherwise, their own attorneys – the people that should be on their side – become a contributor to their inability to resolve these cases.   Continually charging insurers more than the cost to settle a case will never be an effective legal solution, especially when the results aren’t even very good.

But even if the attorneys can come up with legal defenses to efficiently litigate these cases, homeowners insurers still need to use their power to take control of the legal process. Insurers, when that attorney comes down from the heavens with the perfect legal strategy to control these claims, don’t pay for that same motion 1,000 times, pay for it once … and automate it.  Again, use your power and take control.

Once Florida homeowners insurers (and not attorneys) take the power and control over these AOB claims and litigation, they will be able obtain the best possible results in every case while spending the least amount of money to do so.  Until then, things will remain messy and continue to get messier.

Takeaway:

Let’s share strategies on the assignment of benefits claims.  If you share your strategies, I will share mine and those that I have received. Together, we can break this process down to the critical path for our clients.



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Florida’s Fourth DCA in Donovan v. Florida Peninsula Finds 2011 Statute of Limitations for Homeowners’ Insurance Claims is Not Retroactive

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

Overview:

In Donovan v. Florida Peninsula, Florida’s Fourth DCA just issued a very important opinion for anyone unsure of the Florida statute of limitations for homeowners insurance claims.

If you have not seen them yet, you need to check out the two best pages on the site: the Florida Homeowners Insurance Statutes and the Property Insurance Blog Working Index.  Combine them, and they are a guide to handling any Florida homeowners insurance claim.


In Donovan v. Florida Peninsula, Florida’s Fourth DCA recently issued a short but informative decision clarifying the statute of limitations for Florida homeowners insurance claims.  Donovan’s case involved a 2005 insurance claim for hurricane damage.

The question was whether the 2011 version of Fla. Stat. 95.11(2)(e) applied to Donovan’s claim.  The claim occurred and was reported to Florida Peninsula before the statute of limitations was amended. Florida Peninsula asked the Court to retroactively apply the 2011 statute of limitations to Donovan’s lawsuit.  Donovan claimed that the statute was not retroactive and, as a result, she was only required to file the lawsuit within 5 years of Florida Peninsula denying the claim (which would have given her until basically the date of this article to file the lawsuit).

In 2011, Florida’s legislature changed the statute of limitations (or statute of repose) to require the homeowner to file a homeowners insurance-related lawsuit within 5 years of the date of loss.  Prior to this amendment, Florida courts would give the homeowner five years from the date that he alleged the breach of the contract occurred.  In other words, according to the old statute of limitations, the homeowner could presumably wait 10 years to report a claim and it would not be limited because he actually had 5 years from the date the claim was allegedly denied or underpaid (of course, the prompt notice provision would prohibit that claim).

The Fourth DCA determined Fla. Stat. 95.11(2)(e)‘s 2011 statutory amendments did not apply to Donovan’s claim.  Thus, Donovan did not breach the statute of limitations because she did not have to file her lawsuit within 5 years of the date of loss.  Donovan had 5 years from the date Florida Peninsula breached the contract to file the lawsuit.

In addition, the Fourth DCA determined that a trial court should not dismiss a lawsuit for breach of the prompt notice provision.  As you know if you read First Party Property Insurance Blog, the question of late notice cannot be determined at the pleadings stage.

If you want to see my other articles on hurricane claims and homeowners insurance, make sure to check out:

What You Need to Know About Handling a Florida Homeowners Hurricane Insurance Claim

What Hurricane Wilma Insurance Claims Taught Us for the 2014 Hurricane Season

Remembering the 2004 Hurricane Season and Looking Ahead to 2014

Here is a copy of the Donovan v. Florida Peninsula opinion here:

Download (PDF, 191KB)

Takeaway:

This is not rocket science.  If you are going to pay attorneys millions of dollars to litigate for you, take 5% of the time expended to build simple systems to help you achieve better outcomes while spending the least. There is no reason that every attorney handling a case for a carrier should have to analyze the statute of limitations issue “from scratch.” This is a simple question requiring a simple “check the box” answer for each case.

If you want a copy of a guide that streamlines all routine questions like these, please message me.


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Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims for Hail Damage to the Roof

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

Overview:

This article about hail damage and insurance claims is the most popular article on First Party Property Insurance Blog for a reason…

What happens when a homeowner has a roof leak?  Was the leak from the eventual wear and tear on the roof?  Or did hail cause the damage to the roof and the roof leak?  Is it covered by insurance, or it is not? How do I find out if it was hail?  What if my roofer is saying hail caused it, but I am not sure? These are some of the toughest questions facing homeowners and homeowners insurers today.

You have heard it in the news whether you are in the insurance industry or not: hail claims are increasing in rapid numbers.  Hail claims raise many insurance issues.  What do you need to know about them?


Understanding the Issue: Could the Actual Roof Be Covered by Homeowners’ Insurance?

Here is the issue: when an aged roof leaks, people understand that the Florida homeowners insurers will not pay to replace the roof. Most people know that the Florida homeowners insurers specifically exclude wear and tear from coverage, and the only time a homeowners insurer will pay for a new roof is if there was a hurricane or some other event. So, when a roof fails, people report a claim for the damage that was caused by the actual water leaking through the roof, but not the roof itself.

Now, however, people are reporting more hail claims than ever, and homeowners insurers are seeing some suspicious hail claims.

Why is this an issue?  Because if someone reports a roof leak as a hail claim instead of from wear and tear, the homeowner may be entitled to insurance coverage for the roof repairs (in addition to the damage from the water leak).

Thus, now you see where the suspicion comes in: when a homeowners insurer responds to dozens to hundreds of homeowners insurance claims where the adjuster cannot find hail damage on the roof … but the homeowners’ roofer is 100% certain that there is hail damage.

So, have homeowners insurers taken the suspicion too far?

Have the homeowners insurers’ attorneys taken the suspicion too far?

That’s what Chip Merlin says.  In that article, he explains his objections to this hail article in Claims Journal from Steve Badger, an attorney who represents homeowners insurance companies.


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.


I am not going to say who is right and who is wrong, but I will take the chance to quickly point out some of homeowners insurers’ biggest mistakes when handling an insurance claim for hail damage, and how to fix them.

The Mistakes in Handling a Hail Claim

In my experience, the worst thing an insurer can do is simply hand a hail damage property insurance claim to an adjuster or attorney and ask them to have an engineer or roofer provide a cause and origin opinion. First, its expensive.  Second, it will become even more expensive if the insurer relies solely on the expert without considering whether there is evidence of a hailstorm in that area.

Easy Ways to Avoid Costly Mistakes

Even if you don’t have your own database to evaluate similar claims in the area, similar claims from that roofer, or similar claims from that attorney, there are plenty of databases that reflect evidence of a hail storm, including online search tools (Hailstrike and StormIntel for example) and public records requests to see if anyone else in the neighborhood replaced their roof.

If there is evidence of hail reports in the area, it will be difficult and costly to defend against coverage, and the insurer should use the available technology to limit its loss adjustment expenses moving forward.  If there were not any hail reports, then a cause and origin expert and attorney might be necessary to solidify a defense (wear and tear, marring, and oftentimes late notice).

As the author of the Claims Journal article noted, the only ways to actually stop suspicious claims would be to amend policies and statutes. Otherwise, insurers’ most likely method of defending this cases requires a costly jury trial on the factual issue of causation.

Takeaway:

Remove the emotion and judgment from these cases and just focus on the facts.  How do you focus on the facts?  First, figure out what those facts are.

Next, once you have decided what you need to know about a claim to make a coverage decision, make a checklist, provide some guidelines, use software, or do anything.  Just don’t leave these determinations up to a subjective decision without any structured evaluation prepared by your top management and top attorneys.

Software can make this issue much simpler.  If you want to know more about how software is doing remarkable things to control hail claim litigation, please message me.




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