ECONOMIC DAMAGES CANNOT BE BASED ON SPECULATION

shutterstock_630016574Economic damages, unlike non-economic damages (such as those in personal injury disputes), need to rest on a reasonable basis.  Economic damages are those routinely seen in a construction dispute.  These damages cannot be based on conjecture or guesswork and need to be supported by competent substantial evidence.  Otherwise, the economic damages will be deemed too speculative because they are not reasonably quantifiable.   I recently discussed a case involving the professional boxer Canelo Alvarez that was sued by a former promoter for unjust enrichment.  Although the promoter recovered a jury verdict for unjust enrichment damages against Canelo Alvarez, the verdict was reversed because the methodology utilized by the promoter to demonstrate damages was speculative.  This is definitely not what a plaintiff wants to happen after prevailing at the trial level! 

 

Parties are generally involved in civil disputes because of damages.  Without damages, there is no lawsuit.  Thus, a party’s damages, and the methodology used to calculate the damages, is critical.  While economic damages do not need to be demonstrated with mathematical precision, they do need to be supported by competent substantial evidence, i.e., they need to be based on a reasonable degree of certainty. 

 

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

FLORIDA SUPREME COURT’S APPLICATION OF INSURANCE BAD FAITH IN THIRD-PARTY CONTEXT

shutterstock_539752999What happens when an insured receives a judgment in excess of his/her insurance policy limits when the matter could have been resolved within the insured’s policy limits?  Think of a personal injury scenario where the insured received a claim by an injured party and tenders the claim to his/her insurer.  What if that matter could get resolved within policy limits but it does not and exposes the insured to a judgment in excess of the policy limits?  This could be where insurance bad faith comes into play in the third-party liability insurance context based on the totality of  circumstances—the insurer acted in bad faith in failing to settle this third-party claim and exposed the insured to a judgment in excess of the insured’s policy limits.

 

The Florida Supreme Court in Harvey v. Geico General Insurance Company, 43 Fla.L.Weekly S375a (Fla. 2018) just entered a fairly significant ruling in the insurance bad faith context with respect to third-party claims when it reversed the Fourth District Court of Appeal with direction to reinstate a substantial bad faith jury verdict against an insurer.  This case dealt with a car accident that resulted in death.  The driver that caused the accident had policy limits of $100,000 per occurrence.  The decedent’s estate was not going to accept that amount unless it had verification in a recorded statement as to other insurance and assets the driver had, which was never timely facilitated by the driver’s insurer.  As a result, the driver was sued and received an approximate $8 Million Dollar jury verdict against him.  This prompted the bad faith lawsuit (i.e., the driver was exposed to a judgment well in excess of his policy limits) where the jury found the insurer acted in bad faith (because, among other facts, had the insurer timely facilitated a recorded statement of the driver regarding other insurance and assets, the estate likely would have accepted the policy limits since the decedent did not have other insurance or significant assets).   The Fourth District, however, reversed the jury verdict and the issue on appeal became the application of bad faith law in the third-party liability context. 

 

It is this insurance bad faith application that is important and will be quoted below:

  

We have explained that “[b]ad faith law was designed to protect insureds who have paid their premiums and who have fulfilled their contractual obligations by cooperating fully with the insurer in the resolution of claims.” Berges, 896 So. 2d at 682. Thus, “[b]ad faith jurisprudence merely holds insurers accountable for failing to fulfill their obligations, and our decision does not change this basic premise.” Id. at 683.

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Almost four decades ago, we explained the law of bad faith and the good faith duty insurers owe to their insureds in handling their claims, which still holds true today. See Boston Old Colony, 386 So. 2d at 785. We explained that “in handling the defense of claims against its insured,” the insurer “has a duty to use the same degree of care and diligence as a person of ordinary care and prudence should exercise in the management of his own business.” Id. This duty arises from the nature of the insurer’s role in handling the claim on the insured’s behalf — because the insured “has surrendered to the insurer all control over the handling of the claim, including all decisions with regard to litigation and settlement, then the insurer must assume a duty to exercise such control and make such decisions in good faith and with due regard for the interests of the insured.” Id. We explained in great detail what this duty requires of insurers:

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This good faith duty obligates the insurer to advise the insured of settlement opportunities, to advise as to the probable outcome of the litigation, to warn of the possibility of an excess judgment, and to advise the insured of any steps he might take to avoid same. The insurer must investigate the facts, give fair consideration to a settlement offer that is not unreasonable under the facts, and settle, if possible, where a reasonably prudent person, faced with the prospect of paying the total recovery, would do so. Because the duty of good faith involves diligence and care in the investigation and evaluation of the claim against the insured, negligence is relevant to the question of good faith.

Id. (citations omitted).

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We reaffirmed this duty insurers owe to their insureds in Berges, stating that the insurer “owe[s] a fiduciary duty to act in [the insured's] best interests.” 896 So. 2d at 677. Indeed, “this is what the insured expects when paying premiums.” Id. at 683.

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The obligations set forth in Boston Old Colony are not a mere checklist. An insurer is not absolved of liability simply because it advises its insured of settlement opportunities, the probable outcome of the litigation, and the possibility of an excess judgment. Rather, the critical inquiry in a bad faith is whether the insurer diligently, and with the same haste and precision as if it were in the insured’s shoes, worked on the insured’s behalf to avoid an excess judgment. “[T]he question of whether an insurer has acted in bad faith in handling claims against the insured is determined under the ‘totality of the circumstances’ standard.” Id. at 680. Further, it is for the jury to decide whether the insurer failed to “act in good faith with due regard for the interests of the insured.” Boston Old Colony, 386 So. 2d at 785. This Court will not reverse a jury’s finding of bad faith where it is supported by competent, substantial evidence, as “it is not the function of [the appellate court] to substitute its judgment for the trier of fact.” Berges, 896 So. 2d at 680.

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In a case “[w]here liability is clear, and injuries so serious that a judgment in excess of the policy limits is likely, an insurer has an affirmative duty to initiate settlement negotiations.” Powell v. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 584 So. 2d 12, 14 (Fla. 3d DCA 1991). In such a case, where “[t]he financial exposure to [the insured] [i]s a ticking financial time bomb” and “[s]uit c[an] be filed at any time,” any “delay in making an offer under the circumstances of this case even where there was no assurance that the claim could be settled could be viewed by a fact finder as evidence of bad faith.” Goheagan v. Am. Vehicle Ins. Co., 107 So. 3d 433, 439 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012) (citing Boston Old Colony, 386 So. 2d at 785).

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The damages claimed by an insured in a bad faith case “must be caused by the insurer’s bad faith.” Perera v. U.S. Fidelity & Guar. Co., 35 So. 3d 893, 902 (Fla. 2010). However, “the focus in a bad faith case is not on the actions of the claimant but rather on those of the insurer in fulfilling its obligations to the insured.” Berges, 896 So. 2d at 677.*

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In the decision below, the Fourth District stated that “where the insured’s own actions or inactions result, at least in part, in an excess judgment, the insurer cannot be liable for bad faith.” Harvey, 208 So. 3d at 816. We conclude that this statement misapplies our precedent in Berges, where we stated that “the focus in a bad faith case is not on the actions of the claimant but rather on those of the insurer in fulfilling its obligations to the insured.” Berges, 896 So. 2d at 677.

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While this Court has stated that “there must be a causal connection between the damages claimed and the insurer’s bad faith,” Perera, 35 So. 3d at 902, this Court has never held or even suggested that an insured’s actions can let the insurer off the hook when the evidence clearly establishes that the insurer acted in bad faith in handling the insured’s claim. In fact, the standard jury instructions on legal cause in a bad faith case belies the Fourth District’s conclusion that where the insured’s own actions, even “in part” cause the judgment, the insurer cannot be found liable for bad faith. Indeed, the standard legal cause instruction states:

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Bad faith conduct is a legal cause of [loss] [damage] [or] [harm] if it directly and in natural and continuous sequence produces or contributes substantially to producing such [loss] [damage] [or] [harm], so that it can reasonably be said that, but for the bad faith conduct, the [loss] [damage] [or] [harm]would not have occurred.

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Fla. Std. Jury Instr. (Civ.) 404.6(a). Nowhere in this instruction does it state that an insurer can escape liability merely because the insured’s actions could have contributed to the excess judgment.

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To take the Fourth District’s reasoning to its logical conclusion, an insurer could argue that regardless of what evidence may be presented in support of the insured’s bad faith claim against the insurer, so long as the insurer can put forth any evidence that the insured acted imperfectly during the claims process, the insurer could be absolved of bad faith. As Harvey argues, this would essentially create a contributory negligence defense for insurers in bad faith cases where concurring and intervening causes are not at issue. We decline to create such a defense that is so inconsistent with our well-established bad faith jurisprudence which places the focus on the actions on the insurer — not the insured. Berges, 896 So. 2d at 677.

 

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

 

QUICK NOTE: MITIGATION OF DAMAGES IN CONTRACT CASES

imagesIn an earlier article, I discussed an owner’s measure of damages when a contractor breaches the construction contract.  This article discussed a case where the contractor elected to walk off a residential renovation job due to a payment dispute when he demanded more money and the owners did not bite.  This case also discussed the commonly asserted defense known as mitigation of damages, i.e., the other party failed to properly mitigate their own damages.  

 

In the breach of contract setting, mitigation of damages refers to those damages the other side could have reasonably avoided had he undertaken certain (reasonable) measures.  This is known as the doctrine of avoidable consequences

 

In contract cases, there is really no “duty to mitigate” because the claimant “is not compelled to undertake any ameliorative efforts”; rather, he is merely prevented from recovering damages he “could have reasonably avoided.” The word “reasonably” is important. The doctrine of avoidable consequences does not allow a trial court to reduce damages “based on what ‘could have been avoided’ through Herculean efforts.  It applies only where a claimant fails to undertake measures to avoid damages that are available to him without undue effort or expense.

Forbes v. Prime General Contractors, Inc., 43 Fla.L.Weekly D2094a (Fla. 2d DCA 2018) (internal citations omitted).

 

Stated differently, (1) what reasonable efforts could the other party have undertaken to avoid damage or further damage and (2) if the other party employed such efforts, what is the quantum of those avoidable damages.  Typically, you want these addressed by an expert witness so that there is evidence of reasonable efforts the other side could have undertaken and had these efforts been undertaken their damages would be reduced to “X” or it would have prevented them from incurring “Y” in damages. 

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

CONTRACTOR WALKS OFF JOB. WHAT ARE THE OWNER’S DAMAGES?

shutterstock_1059607865What are your damages as the result of a breach of the construction contract?  This is an important question, right?  It is probably the most important part of your case.  If you didn’t have damages, you wouldn’t be in a dispute. So, I repeat, what are your damages as the result of a breach of the construction contract? The below case explains dealing with a contractor that elected to walk off the job mid-construction.

 

In Forbes v. Prime General Contractors, Inc., 43 Fla.L.Weekly D20194a (Fla. 2d DCA 2018), owners hired a contractor to perform a residential renovation job for $276,000.  The owners were to pay the contractor in five draw payments (common for residential jobs) where the third draw payment was due upon the contractor’s completion of the dry-in (as defined in the contract).  After the contractor received the first two draw payments totaling $138,000 plus an additional $6,000 for updated architectural plans, the contractor claimed the job doubled in price and demanded that the owners pay the contractor the third draw payment immediately (before it was due) plus an additional $31,450.  The contractor refused to continue unless the owners agreed to its terms, and then walked off the job when the owners would not agree to these terms (nor should the owners agree to those terms).  At the time the contractor walked off the job, the owners’ home was not habitable due to the construction.

 

The owners sued the contractor for breach of the construction contract and had two damages methodologies they could employ:

 

 

(1) they could deem the contract a total breach, treat the contract as void, suspend their own performance under the contract, and look to be placed in the position they would have been in prior to entering the contract (i.e., had they not hired the contractor); or

(2) they could seek the damages that would place them in the position had the contractor completed the contract.  This damages methodology is more common and would result in the owners seeking the difference between the total amount to complete the contract and the amount owed under the original contract.  For example, if the owners were all in at $376,000 to complete the contract, the contractor would be liable for $100,000, since the owners were always planning on the original contract amount of $276,000. 

 

In this case, however, the owners chose the less common first damages methodology.  The reason being is that the owners could not find another contractor that was reasonably willing to complete the contract.  Also, because the home was uninhabitable, the owners were forced to buy another house versus indefinitely renting.  This resulted in the owners losing the uninhabitable house to foreclosure and their $45,000 equity in the house.  Accordingly, the owners, seeking to be put in the position had they never hired the contractor, sought to recover, among other damages (i) the first two draw payments totaling $138,000 plus the additional $6,000 for updated architectural drawings, (ii) $5,600 in rent, and (iii) $45,000 in lost equity.  These were permissible recoverable damages under the first damages methodology: 

 

They [owners] sought to be put in the position they would have occupied had they never contracted with Prime [contractor]. It was clear at trial that the Forbeses [owners] regarded the breach as total; indeed, they were explicit that they were entitled to suspend their own performance under the contract. And the damages they asked the court to award — return of payments made under the contract and the equity in their home at the time of contracting — were of a type that regarded the contract as void and attempted to restore the Forbeses to their precontractual situation.

 Forbes, supra.

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.