ASSIGNMENT OF BENEFITS PROVISION IN HOMEOWNER’S POLICY IS ENFORCEABLE

shutterstock_1005703702When it comes to property insurance claims, particularly those under a homeowner’s insurance policy, an insured will oftentimes assign its benefits under the policy to a restoration contractor.  The request for the assignment may likely be prompted by the contractor that does not want to perform the work without the assignment of benefits.  The assignment of benefits (also known by the acronym “AOB”) allows the third-party contractor (as the assignee of the insured) to sue the insurer directly for benefits under the policy associated with the restoration work.  

 

Recently, the Fourth District Court of Appeal found enforceable a provision in a homeowner’s insurance policy that stated, “[n]o assignment of claim benefits, regardless of whether made before a loss or after a loss, shall be valid without the written consent of all ‘insureds,’ all additional insureds, and all mortgagee(s) named in this policy.”   Restoration 1 of Port St. Lucie v. Ark Royal Ins. Co., 43 Fla.L.Weekly D2056a (Fla. 4th DCA 2018).  This meant that for the assignment of benefits to be valid, all insureds and the insured’s mortgagee had to sign off on the assignment.

 

In this case, the restoration contractor got the assignment of benefits signed by the wife-insured, but the assignment was not signed by the husband-insured or the mortgagee.  Based on this, the insurer denied payment to the restoration contractor.  The restoration contractor sued the insured based on the assignment and the Fourth District affirmed the trial court in dismissing the complaint holding that the language of the assignment of benefits provision in the policy is enforceable (meaning the contractor needed the written consent of all insureds and the mortgagee in order to effectuate a valid assignment). 

 

Regardless of your feelings about assignment of benefits, the language in the homeowner’s policy must be reviewed to ensure compliance with any assignment of benefits language in the policy. 

 

 

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.

THE CONTINGENCY FEE MULTIPLIER (FOR INSURANCE COVERAGE DISPUTES)

shutterstock_531182533The contingency fee multiplier: a potential incentive for taking a case on contingency, such as an insurance coverage dispute, where the insured sues his/her/its insurer on a contingency fee basis.

 

In a recent property insurance coverage dispute, Citizens Property Ins. Corp. v. Agosta, 43 Fla.L.Weekly, D1934b (Fla. 3d DCA 2018), the trial court awarded the insured’s counsel a contingency fee multiplier of two times the amount of reasonable attorney’s fees.  The insurer appealed. The Third District affirmed the contingency fee multiplier.

 

Of interest, on appeal—which is reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard of appellate review–the Third District analyzed the state of Florida law on contingency fee multipliers.

 

To begin with, Florida has adopted the lodestar approach for determining reasonable attorney’s fees based on the following factors to consider (known the Rowe factors based on the Florida Supreme Court case):

 

(1) The time and labor required, the novelty and difficulty of the question involved, and the skill requisite to perform the legal service properly.

(2) The likelihood, if apparent to the client, that the acceptance of the particular employment will preclude other employment by the lawyer.

(3) The fee customarily charged in the locality for similar legal services.

(4) The amount involved and the results obtained.

(5) The time limitations imposed by the client or by the circumstances.

(6) The nature and length of the professional relationship with the client.

(7) The experience, reputation, and ability of the lawyer or lawyers performing the services.

(8) Whether the fee is fixed or contingent.

 Agosta citing Florida Patient’s Compensation Fund v. Rowe, 473 So.2d 1145 (Fla. 1985).   

 

Based on the consideration of these factors, the trial court determines through an evidentiary hearing a reasonable hourly rate to multiply by a number of reasonable hours expended in the litigation.  This is referred to as the lodestar amount or lodestar figure.  However, the court may add to this lodestar amount by tacking on a contingency fee multiplier.  For example, assume the trial court found 100 reasonable hours were incurred at the reasonable hourly rate of $300.  This would result in an attorney’s fees award of $30,000.  But, with the contingency fee multiplier, the trial court can add to this.  A multiplier of 2 would result in an attorney’s fees award of $60,000, hence the incentive for moving for the multiplier. 

 

In determining whether to add a contingency fee multiplier, the trial court must consider competent, substantial evidence in the record (offered at the evidentiary hearing) of these three factors:

 

(1) whether the relevant market requires a contingency fee multiplier to obtain competent counsel;

(2) whether the attorney was able to mitigate the risk of nonpayment in any way; and

(3) whether any of the factors set forth in Rowe are applicable [the factors mentioned above], especially, the amount involved, the results obtained, and the type of fee arrangement between the attorney and his client.

 

Agosta citing Standard Guarantee Ins. Co. v. Quanstrom, 555 So.2d 828 (Fla. 1990)

 

 

There has been a debate as to whether the contingency fee multiplier only applies in rare and exceptional circumstances.  The Florida Supreme Court (hopefully) put this issue to bed rejecting the argument that the contingency fee multiplier only applies in rare and exceptional circumstances.  Agosta citing Joyce v. Federated National Ins. Co., 228 So.3d 1122 (Fla. 2017). 

 

Just as important, and perhaps the most important to me, the Florida Supreme Court held that a “fee multiplier ‘is properly analyzed through the same lens as the attorney when making the decision to take the case,’ as it ‘is intended to incentivize the attorney to take a potentially difficult or complex case.’”  Id. quoting Joyce, 228 So.3d at 1133. This is important because the complexity of a case is not determined at looking at a case in hindsight based on the actual outcome of the case, but looking at a case through the same lens as the attorney at the time the decision is made to handle the caseId. citing Joyce

 

The Florida Supreme Court also stated that the first contingency fee multiplier factor—the relevant market factor—is based on whether there are attorneys in the relevant market who have the skills to effectively handle the case and would have taken the case absent the availability of a contingency fee multiplier.  Id. citing Joyce.

 

Finally, the Florida Supreme Court stated that the third contingency fee multiplier factor that considers the results obtained is not based on the amount of recovery, even a recovery not exceptionally large—“the Florida Supreme Court held that the trial court correctly analyze the ‘outcome’ of that case when it found that ‘[a]lthough the amount involved [$23,500] was ‘not exceptionally large,’ it was material to the Joyces [plaintiffs].”  Id. quoting Joyce, 228 So.3d at 1125.

 

The contingency fee multiplier adds incentive to handle certain insurance coverage disputes on contingency.  If a multiplier is obtained, it definitely rewards the risk of taking a case on contingency (and certainly one of the reasons I explore such contingency fee options!). 

 

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.

PROPERTY INSURANCE EXCLUSION: LEAKAGE OF WATER OVER 14 DAYS OR MORE

shutterstock_196921499The recent opinion of Whitley v. American Integrity Ins. Co. of Florida, 43 Fla.L.Weekly D1503a (Fla. 5th DCA 2018), as a follow-up to this article on the property insurance exclusion regarding the “constant or repeated seepage or leakage of water…over a period of 14 or more days,” is a beneficial opinion to insureds. 

 

In this case, the insured had a vacation home.  A plumbing leak occurred that caused water damage to the home.  The plumbing leak occurred during a period of time that lasted approximately 30 days.  For this reason, the property insurer denied the claim per the exclusion that the policy does not cover loss caused by repeated leakage of water over a period of 14 or more days from a plumbing system.  Summary judgment was granted by the trial court in favor of the insurer based on this exclusion. 

 

The insured countered that the policy did not address whether it covered a loss occurring within the first 14 days.  The insured argued, and the appellate court agreed, that the insurer therefore failed to establish that the water loss did not occur within the first 14 days.  “The undisputed fact that the property was exposed to water for more than fourteen days did not establish that the loss occurred on the fourteenth or later day of exposure pursuant to the exclusionary provision.”   Whitley, supra.

 

This is a beneficial case to an insured because if loss occurred due to the continued seepage or leakage of water over a period of 14 days or more (e.g., continuous plumbing leak), the insured can establish it is still entitled to coverage for loss that occurs during the first 14 days.  This puts the onus on the insurer to argue the loss occurred after the 14th day.  However, the insured will counter that the loss occurred during the first 14 days.  In other words, the insured can make this a question of fact for the jury.  

 

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.

COMPETING EXPERT WITNESSES IN AN INSURANCE COVERAGE DISPUTE

shutterstock_363608708Oftentimes, insurance coverage disputes involve competing expert witnesses.  The experts render different expert opinions regarding a topic that goes to coverage and/or damages.  An example of competing expert witnesses can be found in the recent property insurance coverage dispute, Garcia v. First Community Ins. Co., 43 Fla.L.Weekly D671a (Fla. 3d DCA 2018). 

 

In this case, an insured submitted a claim under her homeowner’s policy for water damage due to a roof leak.  She claimed her damage was approximately $23,000.  The insurer denied coverage and an insurance coverage dispute ensued.

 

The insured’s policy, akin to many homeowner’s policies, contained exclusions for loss caused by:

 

h. Rain, snow, sleet, sand or dust to the interior of a building unless a covered peril first damages the building causing an opening in a roof or wall and the rain, snow, sleet, sand or dust enters through this opening.

 ***

i. (1) Wear and tear, marring, deterioration;

 

The insurer sent an engineer to inspect the insured’s property and the engineer (expert) opined that the water intrusion was not covered under the policy based on the aforementioned exclusions.  Her opinion was that the water intrusion through the roof was the result of deterioration from age, tree branch abrasions, and construction defects based on how nails were installed into the shingles.  Based on this opinion, the insurer was denying coverage based on the (i) wear and tear, marring and deterioration exclusion and (ii) rain intruded through the roof based on a peril (construction defect) that was not covered under the policy.

 

The insured, as expected, had a competing expert that opined that a hail impact or high wind uplift (covered peril) in the days leading up to the rain event caused water to intrude through the roof and cause interior damage.   Under this opinion, the insured was presenting an expert opinion for coverage and why the insurer’s exclusions were inapplicable.

 

In this case, surprisingly, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the insurer.  However, this was reversed on appeal because the competing opinions as to coverage and the cause of the insured’s loss created a genuine issue of material fact.  Summary judgment cannot be granted if there are genuine issues of material fact.  See Garcia, supra, (“Given this conflict in the material evidence as to the cause of the loss, the trial court erred in entering final judgment in favor of First Community [insurer].”).

 

Another argument the insurer raised was that its engineer inspected the property within months after the date of loss whereas the insured’s expert is basing an opinion on an inspection that occurred three years after the fact.   This fact, albeit true, does not create a genuine issue of material fact.  Rather, it goes to the credibility of the experts at trial.  Which expert is more credible regarding the cause of the loss:  the insurer’s expert that inspected the property a few months after the loss or the insured’s expert that inspected the property years after the loss.  Well, the issue of credibility and how a jury / trier of fact weighs this in consideration of other evidence is not appropriate in determining a motion for summary judgment. See Garcia, supra.

 

Experts are an important part of construction disputes including insurance coverage disputes and it is not uncommon for there to be competing expert opinions as to the cause of a loss, a defect, and, of course, 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.