Florida Condominium Damage Claims for the Association’s Failure to Maintain the Building’s Common Elements – Is Alternative Dispute Resolution Required Prior to Filing a Lawuit?

Under Florida law, when a unit owner sustains damage to their condominium whether by water or mold, due to the Association’s negligence in failing to maintain a common element (to wit, the exterior wall of the building, roof, interior wall pipe that services multiple units, air conditioning stack that services multiple units, sewage pipe/stack that services multiple units, windows (if the Declaration states this is a common element), etc.), they are not required to seek or submit to alternative dispute resolution (ADR) avenues prior to filing suit.

According to Florida Statute §718.1255,  a statute governing condominiums and alternative dispute resolution, voluntary mediation and/or mandatory nonbinding arbitration, if a unit owner and its Association are involved in a “dispute” as defined under this statute, they are required to file a petition with the Division of Florida Condominiums, Timeshares, and Mobile Homes of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, and seek an alternative dispute resolution avenue (non-binding arbitration, to which the arbitrator can refer the parties to mediation) prior to filing a lawsuit for damages, injunctive relief, etc.

Under §718.1255(1), a “dispute” means any disagreement between two or more parties that involves:

(a) The authority of the board of directors, under this chapter (Chapter 718) or association document to:

1. Require any owner to take any action, or not to take any action, involving that owner’s unit or the appurtenances thereto.

2. Alter or add to a common area or element.

(b) The failure of a governing body (ie., association), when required by this chapter or an association document, to:

1. Properly conduct elections.

2. Give adequate notice of meetings or other actions.

3. Properly conduct meetings.

4. Allow inspection of books and records.

Of note, a “dispute” does not include any disagreement that primarily involves: title to any unit or common element; the interpretation or enforcement of any warranty; the levy of a fee or assessment, or the collection of an assessment levied against a party; the eviction or other removal of a tenant from a unit; alleged breaches of fiduciary duty by one or more directors; or claims for damages to a unit based upon the alleged failure of the association to maintain the common elements or condominium property.

Moral of the Story: Whether you are a condo owner that lives in Coral Springs, Cooper City, Hallandale, Boca Raton, Homestead, Brickell, South Beach, Key Biscayne, Weston, Pompano Beach, Tamarac, Plantation, Delray, Deerfield Beach or another area within Miami, Fort Lauderdale or Palm Beach, if your unit sustains water, mold or any form of property damage due to the Association’s negligence in failing to maintain a common element, you are not required to seek or submit to alternative dispute resolution (ADR) avenues prior to filing suit.  While it is certainly recommended to attempt to resolve a property damage dispute with your Association (or another unit owner), if you are unsuccessful, you can simply file a lawsuit and recover your damages via the court process.

Florida Hurricane/Storm Damage Insurance Claims – How Long Do I Have to Provide Notice to My Insurer Under My Insurance Policy?

Right now down here in South Florida, we are in the middle of Hurricane season, thankfully dodging a bullet down here in Miami with Tropical Storm Isaac.  Nevertheless, we were not so lucky with regards to the 2005 season, wherein Hurricane Katrina and Wilma decided to make a visit, and the 2004 season, wherein Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne decided to strike Florida.  Many homeowners throughout the Miami-Dade, Fort Lauderdale and  Palm Beach areas sustained some form of water, wind or flood damage from these storms, most notably roof and window damage.   As a result, many South Florida homeowners have sought the assistance of a Hurricane/storm damage or homeowners insurance claim lawyer to assist them in recovering moneys to fix their property (given the potential for an insurance company’s low damage estimate), or assist them in an insurance claim dispute regarding coverage under their policy.

A couple of the issues that arise quite frequently and which a homeowner should be aware of, are the notice and sworn proof of loss provisions contained within a property damage insurance policy.   Whether it is a flood, wind or homeowners insurance policy, there typically will be some type of language within the policy that states the insured shall give immediate notice to the insurance company after a loss has been incurred, and that the insured shall submit a sworn proof of loss within a certain amount of days of the loss, say 60 days.  These provisions are typically considered  “post-loss condition precedents,”  given that another provision in the policy will usually say that no action can be brought against the insurance company unless there was compliance with the policy provisions.  Given that the notice and sworn proof of loss provisions must be complied with, in cases where they are not, an insurance company may consider this a material breach of the policy by the insured, thereby allowing the insurance company to deny coverage under the policy.

Several cases have recently been decided which lend some clarity as to the amount of time an insured actually has to provide notice to their insurance company regarding a Hurricane damage claim (per the insurance policy provisions), after they have been the victim of a property damage loss.  In Kroener v. Florida Ins. Guar. Ass’n, 63 So.3d 914 (Fla. 4th DCA 2011), the Fourth District Court of Appeal held on June 22, 2011, that a homeowner who sustained interior and exterior damage (roof leak) from Hurricane Wilma and who notified their insurance company two years and two months after the loss, that this was not “prompt notice” as a matter of law (per the notice requirement in the insurance policy) and therefore barred their claims.

Then on July 18, 2012, the Fourth District decided Kramer v. State Farm Florida Ins. Co., 2012 WL 2913189 (Fla 4th DCA 2012), where a homeowner who sustained roof damage in 2004 from Hurricane Frances and Hurricane Jeanne, didn’t make a claim to their insurance company until May 2009, almost five years from the dates of loss.  The insureds did not immediately notify State Farm of the loss, nor did they submit a sworn proof of loss within 60 days of the loss (per the policy provisions).  State farm denied coverage, and the insured sued them for breach of contract under the insurance policy.  The Court noted that despite the fact that a notice of loss and a sworn proof of loss are conditions precedent to suit (because the policy also included a provision that said no action shall be brought unless there has been compliance with the policy provisions), if the insured breaches the notice provision[s], prejudice to the insurer will be presumed, but may be rebutted by a showing that the insurer has not been prejudiced by the lack of notice.  In this case, the insured was unable to rebut the presumption of prejudice, as the insured submitted an affidavit from an engineer that essentially said he could not determine the cause of the damage, whether it was from a hurricane or some other cause.  The Kramer court thus dismissed the insureds claim.  Of note, the Kramer court noted their prior decision in Kroener, stating that holding was based upon a record similar to this case, where the insurer argued that it was prejudiced by the insureds’ untimely pre-suit notice of the alleged loss, and the insureds did not come forward with counter-evidence sufficient to reveal a genuine issue as to whether the insurer was prejudiced, ie., one must still go through the analysis of whether the insurance company was prejudiced (ie., unable to determine the cause of loss) by such late notice from their insured.

Then on July 25, 2012, the Fourth District decided Soronson v. State Farm Florida Ins. Co., 2012 WL 3022349 (Fla 4th DCA 2012), where a homeowner sustained roof damage from Hurricane Wilma in 2005, yet did not notify State Farm until February 2009 (3 years 4 months) of the loss, when they filed a lawsuit against them for failing to pay benefits under their insurance policy.  The Court went through the same analysis as in the Kramer case, noting that although the homeowner failed to comply with their pre-suit notice requirements under the policy (both the immediate notice and submitting of the sworn proof of loss within 60 days of the loss), this merely created a presumption of prejudice against the insurer, but may be rebutted by a showing that the insurer has not been prejudiced by the lack of notice.  The homeowner submitted an affidavit that attached “unsworn” engineer reports.  The Court felt these documents were not sufficient to rebut the presumption of prejudice against State Farm in being unable to investigate the loss due to the late notice.  Again, the Soronson court noted their prior decision in Kroener, stating that holding was based upon a record similar to this case, where the was prejudiced by the insureds’ untimely pre-suit notice of the alleged loss, and the insureds did not come forward with counter-evidence sufficient to reveal a genuine issue as to whether the insurer was prejudiced.

Most recently, on August 1, 2012, the Fourth District decided Leben v. State Farm Florida Ins. Co., 2012 WL 3101336 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012), where a homeowner sustained roof damage from Hurricane Wilma in 2005, yet did not notify State Farm until February 2009 (3 years 4 months) of the loss, when they filed a lawsuit against them for failing to pay benefits under their insurance policy.  The Court went through the same analysis as in the Kramer and Soronson cases, noting that although the homeowner failed to comply with their pre-suit notice requirements under the policy (duty to provide  immediate notice), they were able to create an issue of fact as to the rebuttable presumption of prejudice against the insurance company. The homeowner submitted two reports, one from a leak detection company and another from a roofing company, both reports stating they could unequivocally say damage was caused by Hurricane Wilma despite the fact the homeowner made repairs after the storm. The Court felt these documents were sufficient to rebut the presumption of prejudice against State Farm in being unable to investigate the loss due to the late notice, thereby allowing them to go to trial and let a jury determine whether the late notice prejudiced State Farm’s ability to investigate the loss.

All homeowners should note that these cases above are related to Hurricane Wilma losses or before.  For analysis of statute of limitations and statutory notice requirements related to property damage and Hurricane/windstorm losses after May 17, 2011, see my previous post regarding the changes in Florida law in 2011.

Moral of the Story: Whether you are a homeowner that lives in Hollywood, Dania, Weston, Plantation, Aventura, Miami Beach, Bal Harbour, Coral Gables, Kendall, Pinecrest or another area within Miami, Fort Lauderdale or Palm Beach, after a Hurricane or windstorm, make sure to have your property inspected to determine if any damage was caused by the storm, especially the roof and windows.  That way, you will be able to comply with the notice requirements under your insurance policy and hopefully avoid an insurance claim dispute as referenced in the cases above.

Florida Condo Owner Homeowners Insurance Claims – The Condo Above Me (Second Floor Unit Upstairs) Leaked, What Are My Options?

As South Florida Condominium owners know, many things can go wrong to cause water damage (and resultant mold) to their condominium unit.  One of the most common water intrusion events that can occur is when a neighbor’s condominium unit above yours  has a water loss or water leak, which then gets into your unit through the common elements.   Whether you live in Hollywood, Dania, Weston, Plantation, Aventura, Miami Beach, Bal Harbour, Coral Gables, Kendall, Pinecrest or another area within Miami, Fort Lauderdale or Palm Beach, many unit owners are seasonal (ie., snow birds) and are thus not around to maintain their units on a monthly basis.  As such, it is not uncommon, especially during the Summer, for a neighbor’s condominium unit above yours, the unit on the second floor, the unit next to yours (unit to unit), or the unit upstairs, to experience pipe leaks, burst pipes and plumbing, broken water heaters, shower pan leaks, a pipe burst in the washer, failed pipe in the dishwasher, failed toilet seals, toilet tank leaks, window leaks and/or other types of water intrusions and condo water leaks.  Reason being, no one is living in the unit for months on end to fix any problems that may arise.  When these types of losses occur, one may seek out a Florida condominium water damage insurance claim attorney or Florida condo leak lawyer to get some guidance on how to proceed in resolving Florida condo insurance claims of this type.

The first thing the lawyer will likely do is have you put your own homeowners insurance carrier on notice.  While there are certain exclusions in the policy, your insurance company may cover some or all of the damage such as providing payments for temporary/alternative living arrangements (ALE/loss of use), as well as temporary repairs like mold remediation (one has a duty to mitigate their damages).

As for the lawyer’s investigation,  the source of the water intrusion needs to be determined. Reason being, while the unit owner above may bear some responsibility, the Condominium Association may also bear some responsibility.  Thus, the attorney will probably direct his or her investigation as to whether the upstairs water loss originated from a common element or an item that is the responsibility of the unit owner.  A Declaration of Condominium typically classifies a common element (in relation to items which are a unit owners responsibility) as as anything not touching air, ie., everything behind the walls and ceilings minus the coverings.  As for the Florida Statutes,  718.108(1) states that common elements include: (a) The condominium property which is not included within the units; (b) Easements through units for conduits, ducts, plumbing, wiring, and other facilities for the furnishing of utility services to units and the common elements; (c) An easement of support in every portion of a unit which contributes to the support of a building; and (d) The property and installations required for the furnishing of utilities and other services to more than one unit or to the common elements.  Items which are not common elements and which would be the responsibility of the second floor unit owner, would include pipes underneath the kitchen or bathroom sinks,  a toilet seal that fails or a water heater that explodes.

Certainly, if it is determined that the unit owner above had been out of the condo unit for months on end and a water leak resulted due to to their failure to maintain the inside of their property, the unit owner above will likely have some responsibility.  In this scenario, hopefully they had homeowners insurance, such that a claim can be made to their insurance company.  Even in this scenario, the condominium association still may bear some responsibility for the damage to your unit.  Where water losses are caused by sudden and unforeseeable events (the condominium association will likely argue this type of event was sudden and unforeseeable), these types of losses are considered casualties.  When a casualty occurs, a condominium association’s insurance could come into play.  Pursuant to the Declaration of Condominium, the Association will have a responsibility to maintain, repair and replace common elements.  Pursuant to Florida Statute 718.113(1), maintenance of the common elements is the responsibility of the association.  As such, if you sustained damage to your drywall or ceilings due to a water leak from the upstairs condominium unit above yours (or your neighbor’s, ie.,unit to unit), the association may be responsible for repairing these, minus the “wall coverings” such as paint or wall paper, which would still be the unit owner’s responsibility.

Another area the Association may bear some responsibility, is whether they inspected the wall crevices to see if any mold is growing due to the water loss.  Since the insides of the walls or ceilings would be considered common elements, if the association failed to make sure that these areas are mold free, and mold growth was exacerbated inside your unit as a result, the association may bear some responsibility.

As you can see, this simple situation can actually turn into a complex legal issue, where the unit owner above and the condominium association may disclaim any liability.   This is the reason it is so important for a South Florida condominium owner to have homeowners insurance to cover losses that may arise.  A homeowners insurance claim can always be made against your own insurance, with the assistance of a homeowners insurance property damage lawyer.

For additional analysis on condo issues and Florida condo insurance claims, see my previous post.

Florida Property Damage Insurance Claims – How Long Do I Have to File a Lawsuit or Provide Notice of a Claim?

So you are a South Florida homeowner living in Coral Springs, Cooper City, Hallandale, Boca Raton, Homestead, Key Biscayne, Pompano Beach, Tamarac, Wilton Manors, Hialeah or another area within Miami, Fort Lauderdale or Palm Beach, and one day you come home to a flooded condominium or house. Your furniture is soaked, your walls have started growing toxic mold, and the home has become uninhabitable due to the significant water damage.  Thinking that you may have to file a property damage insurance claim with your homeowners insurance company, you contact a Miami, Florida Water Damage lawyer to get some information on how to file a claim.   The South Florida lawyer asks you if this was a sudden water loss from a burst pipe or water heater, was the water and property damage due to the recent Hurricane and windstorm that just occurred, or was the water damage due to normal wear and tear.  You tell the attorney that your not sure, it may have been from a roof leak.

The next question this Miami, Florida property damage insurance claim attorney asks you is how long ago did this water damage loss occur.  The reason the lawyer would ask you that is because of the changes in the law (specifically, the statue of limitations to bring a property insurance lawsuit for losses occurring on or after May 17, 2011, is now five years from the date of loss) with the governor’s signing of Senate Bill 408 (2011).  Some of the notable changes that went into effect with this bill include the following:

  • Florida Statute §95.11(2)(e): if you sustain a property loss on or after May 17, 2011, the Statute of Limitations for filing lawsuits on all property insurance claims (for breach of insurance contracts) is five (5) years from the date of the property loss.  Before this law was changed, a Florida homeowner could bring a lawsuit within five years from the date the insurance company breached the insurance contract (ie., a wrongful denial of a claim via a denial letter or an improper/lowball estimate).
  • Florida Statute §626.854(11)(a): compensation to a public adjuster for a reopened or supplemental claim may not exceed twenty (20) percent of the reopened or supplemental claim payment.
  • Florida Statute §626.854(15):  a public adjuster must ensure prompt notice of property loss claims submitted to an insurer, the public adjuster’s contract is to be provided to the insurer, the property is to be available for inspection of the loss or damage by the insurance company, and the insurance company is to be given an opportunity to interview the insured directly about the loss and claim. The insurer also must be allowed to obtain necessary information to investigate and respond to the claim.
  • Florida Statute §627.70132: a claim, supplemental claim, or reopened claim under an insurance policy that provides property insurance for loss or damage caused by the peril of a windstorm or hurricane is barred unless notice of the claim, supplemental claim, or reopened claim (ie, reporting the claim to the insurance company) was given to the insurer within three (3) years after the hurricane first made landfall or the windstorm caused the covered damage. The term “supplemental claim” or “reopened claim” means any additional claim for recovery from the insurer for losses from the same hurricane or windstorm which the insurer has previously adjusted pursuant to the initial claim.  Prior to this law change effective June 1, 2011, an insured had five years to report a claim.
  • Florida Statute §627.351(6): for any claim filed under a Citizens Property Insurance Policy as of May 17, 2011, a public adjuster may not charge, agree to, or accept any compensation or fee greater than ten (10) percent of the additional amount actually paid over the amount that was originally offered by the corporation for any one claim.  This appears to limit the ability of a public adjuster to get involved on a Citizens property loss claim until after the homeowner has made a claim and been offered property insurance loss proceeds.  This does not limit the ability of a Miami, Florida Hurricane and Windstorm damage insurance claim lawyer from getting involved from the beginning, however.
  • Florida Statute §627.7011(3)(a): as to losses for which a dwelling (house structure) is insured on the basis of replacement costs, the insurance company must initially pay at least the actual cash value of the insured loss, minus any applicable deductible. However,the insurer shall pay any remaining amounts necessary to perform such repairs as work is performed and expenses are incurred. If a total loss of a dwelling occurs, the insurance company is to pay the replacement cost coverage without reservation or holdback of any depreciation in value  pursuant to section 627.702.   As such, if work is contracted for but not done, and therefore, expenses are not incurred, the insurance company will not issue a check to their insured.
  • Florida Statute §627.706(5): any claim brought on or after May 17, 2011, including, but not limited to, initial, supplemental, and reopened claims under an insurance policy that provides sinkhole coverage, is barred unless notice of the claim was given to the insurance company within two (2) years after the policyholder knew or reasonably should have known about the sinkhole loss.

As you can see, these changes in the law (most of them taking place on May 17, 2011), will affect the ability of policy holders to bring Florida property damage insurance suits and claims, and public adjusters will be significantly affected, especially for claims on a Citizens Insurance policy.

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims – HO-2 v. HO-3 v. HO-4 v. HO-6 v. HO-8, Insurance Policies Oh My

When living in South Florida, it is more important than ever for a homeowner or renter/tenant to secure insurance for the many different hazards that may affect one’s property.  After all, we are especially susceptible to tropical storms and Hurricanes in the Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach areas.  Yet, even though we have not experienced a Hurricane in quite some time, having homeowners or renters  insurance can provide peace of mind given the many other perils which may occur and that can destroy one’s property, including fires, electrical surges, floods, sinkholes, tornadoes, lightning strikes, vandalism, theft, and/or sudden water losses from a burst pipe, faulty/broken plumbing or a failed seal in a water heater.

Whether your a single family homeowner that may have an HO-2, HO-3 (also know as an “All Risks” policy) or HO-8 policy, a condo owner that has an HO-6 policy, or a tenant/renter that has a an HO-4 policy, if you sustain a property loss (structure and/or personal property) and require a Miami, Florida, Hurricane or property damage insurance claim lawyer, there are legal issues an insurance company may raise depending on the type of policy you have,  and that you scratch your head and say, what is that.  Some of these issues may include the following:

    1. Actual Cash Value:  if a policy provides for actual cash value as opposed to replacement cost, this would be the amount of money it would  cost to purchase a similar item in like condition and quality in today’s market place, ie, the market value of the property that takes into consideration depreciation.  An example of depreciation is say carpet or other types of flooring that has a useful life of say 10 years but at the time of loss was 5 years old, the market value of the carpet would be less than the replacement cost, as the market value would take into consideration this wear and tear over the years and reduce the value of the property.
    2. Replacement Cost: if a policy provides for the replacement cost of damaged property, this would be the amount of money it would take to purchase the same type of property of like kind and quality in today’s market place.
    3. Alternative Living Expenses: also known as ALE, alternative living expenses may include the reasonable expenses incurred to relocate for the time it takes to repair an uninhabitable property, such as staying in a hotel for days or weeks,  excess food expenses above what one normally would spend, transportation expenses in case you need to travel greater distances than normal, and storage expenses, just to name a few.  It is important to save your receipts in order to prove that these expenses were actually incurred.
    4. Loss of Use: an interchangeable term with alternative living expenses (ALE) on a Miami, Florida, homeowners insurance policy, loss of use damages are paid when a homeowner incurs excess expenses during the time it takes to repair an uninhabitable property.
    5. Deductible: the amount of money the policy holder must pay out of pocket before the insurance company will start paying from your insurance coverage.  For instance, a Miami, Florida, homeowner may have a $5,000 deductible on a windstorm policy, and when a Hurricane damage insurance claim is made, if the property damage claim is adjusted at $15,000, the insurance company will pay you a net of $10,000, ie., minus the $5,000 deductible.
    6. Exclusion: within a homeowner’s policy, there will be certain provisions called exclusions that an insurance company may cite to in order to deny a claim.  Common exclusions cited in a homeowner’s insurance policy could include mold (given that is it something that grows over time), flood (you would need to purchase a separate flood policy), landslides/sinkholes (ie, earth movement), neglect/wear and tear (policies cover water damage caused by sudden and unexpected losses, such as a burst pipe or a water heater that explodes), a sewer backup, loss caused by intentional destruction, and ordinance/law (such as construction to bring a house up to code), just to name a few.  However, insurance companies typically offer a homeowner the opportunity to purchase coverage that normally would be excluded.

As you can see, whether you are a homeowner/tenant in Coral Springs, Cooper City, Hallandale, Boca Raton, Homestead, Key Biscayne, Weston, Pompano Beach, Tamarac, Wilton Manners, Hialeah or another area within Miami, Fort Lauderdale or Palm Beach, there is a lot to think about when it comes to your insurance policy and potential property damage disputes and claims that may occur.

Florida Condo Owner Pipe Plumbing Leak Claims – It’s the Rainy Season Down in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach: Be Prepared

It is currently the rainy season down here in South Florida, and nothing is worse than having one of those downpours cause water damage to your house, apartment or condominium.  Whether it is a leak in your roof, flooding due to a flash flood, or even a gutter or burst pipe/plumbing that overflows with water, it is now more important than ever to have flood and/or homeowners insurance to protect you from water intrusions and the resultant water damage loss.  Many times, not only is the structure damaged, but furniture, electronics and other items are frequently ruined.

As such, when one has to bring Florida Condo Owner Pipe Plumbing Leak Claims, it is important to know the types of property damage insurance coverage available, whether flood or homeowners, so that you are protected in a time of crisis.  Reason being, mold is commonly caused by water intrusions, yet one of the most common exclusions that insurance companies cite to in denying a homeowner’s insurance claim is the mold exclusion.  A Miami, Florida, property damage and homeowners insurance claim attorney can help one navigate the muddy waters of the various types of policies, so that the losses and claims that eventually occur can be dealt with.  Whether you live in Miramar, Deerfield Beach, Coconut Creek, Doral, Lauderhill, Margate, Miami Lakes, Pembroke Pines or another area throughout Miami, Fort Lauderdale or Palm Beach, it is certainly better to be informed and prepared than to suffer a non-covered property loss that causes heartache and headaches.