DO NOT FORFEIT COVERAGE UNDER YOUR PROPERTY INSURANCE POLICY

If you have read prior articles (see here and here as an example), then you know that when it comes to first-party property insurance policies, an insured must comply with post-loss obligations in the policy.  Failure to comply with a post-loss obligation gives the insurer the argument that the insured materially breached the policy and, therefore, forfeited rights to coverage.  Naturally, this is avoidable by ensuring post-loss obligations are complied with, ideally under the guidance of counsel and qualified public adjusters to ensure your rights are being preserved and maximized.

[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.

Universal Property & Casualty Ins. Co. v. Horne, 46 Fla.L.Weekly D201b (Fla. 3d DCA 2021) quoting American Integrity Ins. Co. v. Estrada, 276 So.3d 905, 916 (Fla. 3d DCA 2019).

This means when an insured fails to comply with a post-loss obligation (e.g., sworn statement in proof of loss, examination under oath), the property insurer will assert this failure as an affirmative defense.   There is an “if-then” framework to determine whether there is “to be a total forfeiture of coverage under a homeowner’s insurance policy for failure to comply with post-loss obligations.”  Horne, supra.   First, the insurer has the burden to establish that its insured failed to substantially comply with a post-loss obligation in the policy.  If the insurer establishes this, prejudice to the insurer is presumed.  Then the burden shifts to the insured to demonstrate the breach (failure to comply with post-loss obligations) did NOT prejudice the insurer.

In Horne, the property insurer raised as an affirmative defense that its insured failed to timely comply with its post-loss obligation of submitting a sworn statement in proof of loss within 60 days.  The insured argued, and the trial court agreed, that the insurer waived this argument by acknowledging coverage by tendering some payment to its insured for the loss. The appellate court held this was incorrect because “[i]nvestigatig any loss or claim under any policy or engaging in negotiations looking toward a possible settlement of any such loss or claim does not constitute a waiver of a ‘sworn proof of loss’ requirement.”  Horne, supra (internal citations and quotation omitted).  Without waiver applying, this means the insured’s failure to timely submit its sworn statement in proof of loss must fall within the “if-then” framework discussed above to determine prejudice to the insurer and, thus, total forfeiture under 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.

 

READ THE PROPERTY INSURANCE POLICY TO BE SURE YOU ARE COMPLYING WITH POST LOSS OBLIGATIONS

I have discussed this before in prior postings, but it is worth repeating.  It is imperative for an insured to comply with post loss obligations in a property insurance policy.  Not doing so gives the insurer the argument that its insured forfeited coverage under the policy.  Naturally, this is never what an insured wants as this is contrary to submitting an insurance claim to begin with.  To avoid this situation, an insured should consult with counsel and read the policy including endorsements issued to the policy to be sure that post loss obligations are complied with and, if they are not, there is a basis supported by case law.

In a recent case, Goldberg v. Universal Property and Casualty Ins. Co., 45 Fla. L. Weekly D2118b (Fla. 4th DCA 2020), the property insurance policy for hurricanes and windstorms contained the following through an endorsement issued to the policy:

You must give notice of a claim, a supplemental claim, or reopened claim for loss or damage caused by the peril of windstorm or hurricane, with us in accordance with the terms of this policy and within three years after the hurricane first made landfall or the windstorm caused the covered damage. For purposes of this Section, the term “supplemental claim” or “reopened claim” means any additional claim for recovery from us for losses from the same hurricane or windstorm which we have previously adjusted pursuant to the initial claim. . . .

The insured submitted a claim for hurricane damage.  The insurer sent an adjuster that adjusted the loss at $12,960.80, and after depreciation, reflected an actual cash value of $9,158.43.  The insurer paid the insured $8,158.43 after deducting the insured’s deductible.  The insurer also notified the insured that the policy did include a replacement cost value and once the work was performed and costs verified it will evaluate for eligibility for payment of the depreciation.

Later, the insured notified the insurer he received an estimate for higher than the proceeds received.  The insurer asked the insured to forward the estimate but the insured did not do so.  The insured then filed a lawsuit against the insurer.  However, prior to filing a lawsuit the insured did not submit a supplemental claim to the insurer.   An issue was whether the insured failed to satisfy post loss obligations in the policy by not submitting a supplemental claim prior to filing suit.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal held that the insured did NOT comply with his post loss obligations because he did not submit a supplemental claim to the insurer for damages he sought in excess of what the insurer paid:

Here, the record shows that [the property insurer] “previously adjusted” [the insured’s] initial claim after he filed the Property Loss Notice in September 2017, and then promptly paid $8,158.43 on that claim. After [the property insurer] had “previously adjusted” the initial claim, any request by [the insured] for additional payment for losses from the same hurricane fell within the meaning of an “additional claim for recovery . . . for losses from the same hurricane” which [the property insurer] had “previously adjusted.” Thus, under the terms of the policy, [the insured] was required to notify [the property insurer] that he claimed further damages from Hurricane Irma.

Goldberg, supra.

The point is that had the insured simply provided a supplemental claim per his policy, even estimates he received for the remedial work, the end result would likely have been different because he would have satisfied a post loss obligation.  This is important because his claim was clearly covered as the insurer would not have paid proceeds based off its adjustment if it did not believe the claim was a covered claim.  But, by not complying with the terms of the policy, the insured was deprived of additional amounts relative to the loss.

 

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.

 

AVOID THE HEADACHE – SUBMIT THE SWORN PROOF OF LOSS TO PROPERTY INSURER

Property insurance policies (first party insurance policies) contain post-loss obligations that an insured must (and should) comply with otherwise they risk forfeiting insurance coverage.   One post-loss obligation is the insurer’s right to request the insured to submit a sworn proof of loss.  Not complying with a post-loss obligation such as submitting a sworn proof of loss can lead to unnecessary headaches for the insured.  Most of the times the headache can be avoided.  Even with a sworn proof of loss, there is a way to disclaim the finality of damages and amounts included by couching information as estimates or by affirming that the final and complete loss is still unknown while you work with an adjuster to quantify the loss.  The point is, ignoring the obligation altogether will result in a headache that you will have to deal with down the road because the property insurer will use it against you and is a headache that is easily avoidable.  And, it will result in an added burden to you, as the insured, to demonstrate the failure to comply did not actually cause any prejudice to the insurer.

By way of example, in Prem v. Universal Property & Casualty Ins. Co., 45 Fla. L. Weekly D2044a (Fla. 3d DCA 2020), the insured notified their property insurer of a plumbing leak in the bathroom.  The insurer requested for the insured to submit a sworn proof of loss per the terms of the insured’s property insurance policy. The insurer follow-up with its request for a sworn proof of loss on a few occasions. None was provided and the insured filed a lawsuit without ever furnishing a sworn proof of loss.  The insurer moved for summary judgment due the insured’s failure to comply with the post-loss obligations, specifically by not submitting a sworn proof of loss, and the trial court granted the insurer’s motion.  Even at the time of the summary judgment hearing, the insured still did not submit a sworn proof of loss.

On appeal, the appellate court affirmed that the insured failed to comply with its post-loss obligation by not submitting a sworn proof of loss.  That decision seemed easy.  However, it remanded back to the trial court to determine whether the insurer was prejudiced by the insured’s failure to comply with the post-loss obligation in accordance with case law putting a burden on an insured to establish the insurer was not prejudiced by the failure to comply:

By failing to submit a sworn proof of loss to [the property insurer], the Insureds deprived [the property insurer] of the “opportunity to make a timely investigation, and to prevent fraud and imposition upon it.”  Not only did the Insureds fail to provide the information required under the policy, but they also objected to [the property insurer] obtaining information from their public adjuster via subpoena and failed to coordinate any depositions prior to the filing of and hearing on the motion for summary judgment.

As a result of the Insureds’ failure to submit a sworn proof of loss at any point in time prior to the trial court’s entry of summary judgment, the trial court correctly found, based on this record, that the Insureds materially breached a post-loss contractual condition precedent to the commencement of a lawsuit against [the property insurer]. We affirm the trial court’s finding on the Insureds’ lack of compliance with their post-loss obligations because the Insureds failed to provide [the property insurer] with a sworn proof of loss prior to filing suit and failed to provide any evidence sufficient for a jury to find that they had substantially complied with that requirement.

A panel of this Court recently held, “when 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.” Estrada, 276 So. 3d at 916 (certifying conflict with Rodrigo v. State Farm Fla. Ins. Co., 144 So. 3d 690 (Fla. 4th DCA 2014) and Goldman v. State, 660 So. 2d 300 (Fla. 4th DCA 1995)). We are bound by that decision.

At the time the trial court heard and ruled on [the property insurer’s] motion for summary judgment, this Court had not issued its opinion in Estrada. The record on appeal, therefore, does not contain any discussion of the shifting burden of proof and whether [the property insurer] was prejudiced by the Insureds’ failure to submit any sworn proof of loss.

Lacking the subsequently provided analysis in Estrada, the trial court cannot be faulted for ending its analysis at summary judgment as to whether the insured complied or substantially complied with the post-loss obligations. Under Estrada — applicable to this appeal, which was pending at the time of Estrada‘s release — trial courts are required to analyze whether the insurer was prejudiced by the insured’s failure to comply prior to determining that the insured forfeited coverage by the breach. Thus, we reverse and remand to permit the parties to make supplemental filings and for the trial court to consider and analyze the question of prejudice, as set forth in Estrada.

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.

DID THE INSURED FORFEIT PROPERTY INSURANCE COVERAGE BY FAILING TO COMPLY WITH POST-LOSS POLICY OBLIGATIONS?

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 coverageSee 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 factSee 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).

Estrada, supra

 

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.

Estrada, 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.