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.

PROPERTY INSURANCE EXCLUSION FOR CONSTANT OR REPEATED LEAKAGE OF WATER

shutterstock_196921499A property insurance policy, no different than any insurance policy, contains exclusions for events that are NOT covered under the terms of the policy.  One such common exclusion in a property insurance policy is an exclusion for damages caused by “constant or repeated seepage or leakage of water…over a period of 14 or more days.”  

 

The application of this exclusion was discussed in the recent opinion of Hicks v. American Integrity Ins. Co. of Florida, 43 Fla. L. Weekly D446a (Fla. 5th DCA 2018).  In this case, while the insured was out of town, the water line to his refrigerator started to leak.  When the insured return home over a month later, the supply line was discharging almost a thousand gallons of water per day.  The insured submitted a property insurance claim.  The property insurer engaged a consultant that opined (likely, correctly) that the water line had been leaking for at least five weeks.  Based on the above-mentioned exclusion, i.e., that water had been constantly leaking for over a period of 14 days, the insurer denied coverage.  This denial led to the inevitable coverage dispute.

 

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the insurer in the insurance coverage lawsuit.  The insured argued at trial and then on appeal that this exclusion only applies to losses caused by water on day 14 and after.  For this reason, the insured attempted to calculate his water damage losses that occurred during the first 13 days of the supply line leaking. The appellate court agreed with the insured:

 

In light of the general principle that insurance policy provisions susceptible to more than one interpretation should be construed liberally in favor of the insured and strictly against an insurer, and that exclusionary clauses should be read even more narrowly, we hold that an insurance policy excluding losses caused by constant or repeated leakage or seepage over a period of fourteen days or more does not unambiguously exclude losses caused by leakage or seepage over a period of thirteen days or less.  It is not unambiguously clear that a provision excluding losses caused by constant leakage of water over a period of fourteen or more days likewise excludes losses caused by constant leakage of water over a period of less than fourteen days. And ambiguous insurance provisions — those susceptible to more than one meaning, one providing coverage and the other denying it — must be construed against the insurer and in favor of coverage. 

Hicks, supra (internal citations omitted).

 

This is a favorable ruling for an insured as it established coverage within the first 13 days of the water supply line leaking. The damages associated with that loss is a material issue of fact to be determined by the jury (or judge if it is a bench trial).  But, importantly, the ruling established coverage under this exclusion, meaning the insurer could not categorically bar coverage because the leak constantly occurred for 14 or more days; rather, the insured’s damages, if any, would be limited to the first 13 days of the leak.

 

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.