Florida Fire Damage Claim Disputes – A Bad Faith Analysis

As a South Florida homeowner, I know how hot it gets in the summer, wherein we sometimes experience extensive periods of heat, drought and lightning strikes.  These types of conditions can cause wildfires that reach your house or business, or your residence can simply experience an electrical problem or power surge, to which a fire breaks out as a result.  There are also  fires that occur due to arson, an accident (such as a product or appliance malfunction), or even a burglary gone wrong.  After a fire has devastated your home or business, several types of damage can result, including structural damage, water damage, smoke damage, roof damage, melting issues, damage to the building’s plumbing or electric systems, and damage to the personal property inside the structure (such as furniture, office equipment, appliances, clothes, papers, etc.).  A business may also suffer a significant loss of profits due to a business interruption.

When a fire occurs, a home or business owner may seek out the assistance of a fire damage insurance claim lawyer, given that insurance companies commonly look for ways to deny a property damage claim (by claiming fraud or arson), or they fail to pay the full value of the fire damage loss.  If your fire damage claim has been denied, delayed, disputed or evaluated in bad faith by your insurance company, you may have to file a bad faith lawsuit for breach of the insurance contract.

This is the type of situation that was apparent in the case of Talat Enterprises, Inc. v. Aetna Cas. and Sur. Co., 753 So.2d 1278 (Fla. 2000), wherein a restaurant/business owner that sustained fire damage to his business brought a first party bad faith lawsuit against Aetna Insurance Company.  Apparently, after Aetna made an initial payment for damage, the business owner submitted proofs of loss for additional damages, including personal property and loss of business income.  Thereafter, an appraisal award was entered in favor of the business owner, to which Aetna paid the full amount of this award.  Sometime after Aetna’s appraisal award payment, the business owner issued a statutory notification of intent to pursue a bad faith claim against Aetna under section 624.155  of the Florida Statutes.   After the sixty day cure period expired without an additional payment, the business owner filed suit against Aetna, who moved for summary judgment.  Aetna claimed that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law under section 624.155(2)(d) (states that “[n]o action shall lie if, within 60 days after filing notice, the damages are paid or the circumstances giving rise to the violation are corrected.”),  because it paid the underlying contract damages (ie., the appraisal award) within the sixty days from the date that the business owner filed its bad faith notice (they actually paid prior to the sixty day notice). The business owner countered that Aetna was required to pay not only the damages owed under the insurance policy, but also all extra-contractual damages flowing from Aetna’s alleged failure to make a good-faith attempt to settle his claim.

The trial court granted Aetna’s Motion for Summary Judgment, finding that Aetna “ha[d] timely paid ‘the damages’ and ha[d] corrected ‘the circumstances giving rise to the violation’ ” within the meaning of section 624.155(2)(d)., and that Aetna had satisfied the dictates of section 624.155(2)(d) by paying the restaurant owners contractual damages, i.e., the amount awarded via the appraisal award, before the expiration of the sixty-day cure period.  The trial court rejected the business owners reading of the statute as requiring the insurer to pay whatever the insured demands.  The Supreme Court agreed with the Trial Court’s reasoning (was answering a question certified as a matter of great public importance), finding that a bad faith cause of action does not even become ripe until after the 60 day notice requirement expires without any payment of the damages owed under the insurance contract.  In this case, Aetna paid the amounts owed under the insurance policy, preventing a bad faith cause of action under section 624.155 for extra contractual damages.

Moral of Story: If you are a homeowner or business owner that sustains fire damage, and your attorney brings a first party fire damage insurance claim under your insurance policy, whether you live in Miramar, Cutler Bay, Palmetto Bay, Homestead, Key West, Doral, West Kendall, Davie, Sunrise, Miami Springs, Margate, Pembroke Pines or another area within Miami, Fort Lauderdale or Palm Beach, know that if your insurance company pays an appraisal award (ie., the damages owed under the insurance contract), even if you sustain extra contractual damages, a bad faith claim is prohibited under section 624.155 given that the contractual damages have been paid.