Have you complied with your property insurance policy’s post-loss policy obligations? Has your property insurer argued that your failure to comply with post-loss policy obligations has resulted in you forfeiting insurance coverage? Have you filed a lawsuit against your property insurer for coverage and the property insurer has asserted affirmative defenses based on your material breach of the policy by failing to comply with post-loss policy obligations?
These are common questions when an insured submits a claim under a property insurance policy. Knowing how to address these questions (and a property insurer’s coverage defenses relating to these questions) is important when pursuing a property insurance claim.
The Third District Court of Appeal in American Integrity Insurance Company v. Estrada, 44 Fla. L. Weekly D1639a (Fla. 3d DCA 2019), does a good job addressing these questions in a property insurance coverage dispute involving vandalism. The property insurer in this case raised various forfeiture of coverage affirmative defenses relating to its insured’s failure to comply with post-loss policy conditions, e.g., (i) failure to appear for an examination under oath, (ii) failure to promptly notify the insurer of the vandalism (the loss), (iii) failure to submit a sworn proof of loos, (iv) failure to provide all requested records, and (v) failure to protect the property from further damage by making repairs. These are fairly routine affirmative defenses raised by a property insurer. The procedural argument in this case is not relevant; what is relevant is the Court’s discussion of an insurer’s affirmative defenses based on its insured’s failure to comply with post-loss policy obligations.
As shown below, an insured’s breach of a post-loss policy obligation MUST be material and MUST prejudice the insurer. An insured’s material breach of a post-loss obligation will result in a presumption of prejudice to the insurer, however, an insured can REBUT the presumption by showing the insurer was not prejudiced, which is a question of fact for the trier of fact.
1. Breach of Post-Loss Obligations Must be “Material”
The Third District explained:
Florida law “abhors” forfeiture of insurance coverage. See Axis Surplus Ins. Co. v. Caribbean Beach Club Ass’n, Inc., 164 So. 3d 684, 687 (Fla. 2d DCA 2014). “Moreover, ‘[p]olicy provisions that tend to limit or avoid liability are interpreted liberally in favor of the insured and strictly against the drafter who prepared the policy . . . .’ ” Bethel v. Sec. Nat’l Ins. Co., 949 So. 2d 219, 223 (Fla. 3d DCA 2006) (quoting Flores v. Allstate Ins. Co., 819 So. 2d 740, 744 (Fla. 2002)).
With these basic principles in mind, it is, unsurprisingly, well settled that, for there to be a total forfeiture of coverage under a homeowner’s insurance policy for failure to comply with post-loss obligations (i.e., conditions precedent to suit), the insured’s breach must be material. See Drummond, 970 So. 2d at 460 (concluding that the insured’s failure to comply with a post-loss obligation “was a material breach of a condition precedent to [the insurer’s] duty to provide coverage under the policy”) (emphasis added); Starling, 956 So. 2d at 513 (“[A] material breach of an insured’s duty to comply with a policy’s condition precedent relieves the insurer of its obligations under the contract.”) (emphasis added); Goldman v. State Farm Fire Gen. Ins. Co., 660 So. 2d 300, 303 (Fla. 4th DCA 1995) (“An insured’s refusal to comply with a demand for an examination under oath is a willful and material breach of an insurance contract which precludes the insured from recovery under the policy.”) (emphasis added); Stringer v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Co., 622 So. 2d 145, 146 (Fla. 3d DCA 1993) (“[T]he failure to submit to an examination under oath is a material breach of the policy which will relieve the insurer of its liability to pay.” (quoting 13A Couch on Insurance 2d (Rev. 3d) § 49A:361 at 760 (1982) (footnote omitted) (emphasis added))).
Further, while the interpretation of the terms of an insurance contract normally presents an issue of law, the question of whether certain actions constitute compliance with the contract often presents an issue of fact. See State Farm Fla. Ins. Co. v. Figueroa, 218 So. 3d 886, 888 (Fla. 4th DCA 2017) (“Whether an insured substantially complied with policy obligations is a question of fact.”) (emphasis added); Solano v. State Farm Fla. Ins. Co., 155 So. 3d 367, 371 (Fla. 4th DCA 2014) (“A question of fact remains as to whether there was sufficient compliance with the cooperation provisions of the policy to provide State Farm with adequate information to settle the loss claims or go to an appraisal, thus precluding a forfeiture of benefits owed to the insureds.”) (emphasis added).
2. If the Breach was Material, was the Property Insurer “Prejudiced”
Although there is a split between Florida’s Fourth and Fifth District Courts of Appeal on this prejudicial element (the Fourth District has taken a more pro-insurer friendly approach), the Third District agreed with the Fifth District’s more insured-friendly approach that “the insurer must be prejudiced by the insured’s non-compliance with a post-loss obligation in order for the insured to forfeit coverage.”
3. Party Bearing Burden to Establish Property Insurer was “Prejudiced”
The Third District held that while prejudice to an insurer will be presumed when an insured materially fails to comply with a post-loss policy obligation, the insured can rebut this presumption by showing the insurer was not prejudiced:
[W]hen an insurer has alleged, as an affirmative defense to coverage, and thereafter has subsequently established, that an insured has failed to substantially comply with a contractually mandated post-loss obligation, prejudice to the insurer from the insured’s material breach is presumed, and the burden then shifts to the insured to show that any breach of post-loss obligations did not prejudice the insurer.
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