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 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 Hurricane/Storm Damage Claims – Implied Warranty of Good Faith and Fair Dealing: Does it apply in claim by an Insured Against its Insurer for Failing to Investigate a Hurricane Loss in a Timely Manner?

It does not, so says the Florida Supreme Court in the case of QBE Ins. Corp. v. Chalfonte Condominium Apartment Ass’n, Inc. (May 2012), where Chalfonte Condominium sued their insurance company, QBE, arising out of a property damage loss from Hurricane Wilma.  Chalfonte submitted an estimate of damages to QBE on December 18, 2005, and then submitted a sworn proof of loss to QBE on July 12, 2006.  Not satisfied with QBE’s investigation and processing of its claim, Chalfonte filed suit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida for among other things, breach of contract (breach of the implied warranty of good faith and fair dealing).

The jury found for Chalfonte on all of its claims, including the awarding of moneys for QBE’s breach of the implied warranty of good faith and fair dealing.  QBE would end up appealing the judgement to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, to which the Eleventh Circuit certified five questions to the Florida Supreme Court, one of which was the following:

Did Florida law recognize a claim for breach of the implied warranty of good faith and fair dealing by an insured against its insurer based on the insurer’s failure to investigate and assess the insured’s claim within a reasonable period of time?

Of note, the Florida Supreme Court recognized that “Florida courts imposed an independent duty on liability insurers to act in good faith when defending insureds against third-party claims,” and recognized a common law cause of action for bad faith within the context of third-party actions.  These  third-party bad-faith actions would involve a claim “in which an insured sues his liability insurance company for bad faith in failing to settle a claim which ultimately results in a third-party judgment against him in excess of the policy limits.”  The Florida Supreme Court then noted section 624.155 of the Florida Statutes (2009), specifically,  section 624.155(1)(b)(1), which created a statutory first-party bad-faith cause of action.    Section 624.155(1)(b)(1) states that “any person may bring a civil action against an insurer when such person is damaged…by the commission of any of the following acts by the insurer..not attempting in good faith to settle claims when, under all the circumstances, it could and should have done so, had it acted fairly and honestly toward its insured and with due regard for her or his interests…”

After reviewing the current status of “bad faith” law, the Florida Supreme Court, while acknowledging that “Florida contract law does recognize an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing in every contract,” concluded that this implied covenant did not create a separate first-party action against an insurance company based on its bad-faith refusal to pay a claim.  Moreover, the Court held that “such first-party claims [by Chalfonte] are actually statutory bad-faith claims that must be brought under section 624.155 of the Florida Statutes.”

Moral of the story:  Florida does not recognize a claim for breach of the implied warranty of good faith and fair dealing by an insured against its insurance company for failing to investigate a hurricane loss, as such a claim is actually a statutory bad-faith claim that must be brought under section 624.155 of the Florida Statutes.  As such, Florida Hurricane/storm damage claims lawyers in Hollywood, Dania, Weston, Plantation, Aventura, Miami Beach, Bal Harbour, Coral Gables, Kendall, Pinecrest or other areas throughout Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, will now have to bring such a claim as a statutory bad-faith claim.