December 2013

Pursuant to Florida law, everyone who operates a motor vehicle in Florida is required to carry automobile insurance coverage.  As part of the process of obtaining or renewing your driver’s license, you are usually required to show “proof of insurance” or to otherwise prove that you have adequate insurance coverage.  What most people don’t understand is exactly how important it is to carry this insurance.

In Florida, there are numerous types of automobile insurance coverages available.  In short, Property Damage Coverage provides coverage for damage you cause to another person’s automobile.  Comprehensive Coverage provides coverage for any damage to your own vehicle.  Personal Injury Protection coverge provides coverage (usually up to a limit of $10,000) for the payment of your own medical bills and/or lost wages in case of any accident.  Bodily Injury Coverage provides coverage for any injuries you may cause to others through the operation of your vehicle.  Uninsured/Under-Insured motorist coverage provides coverage for your injuries if the person who caused the accident does not have enough (or any) insurance coverage to compensate you for your injuries.  Loss of Use/Rental Coverage provides coverage for either a rental car or compensation for the loss of the ability to use your vehicle while it is getting repaired.

Although there are many coverages available, the only coverages that are Mandatory under Florida law are Personal Injury Protection and Property Damage coverages.  With this minimialistic coverage, the only things that would be covered in an accident would be your own medical bills (up to $10,000) and the cost to repair the not-at-fault driver’s vehicle.  What would NOT be covered is any sort of personal injury damages or the repair of the at-fault vehicle. 

Unfortunately, history shows that in Florida many/most drivers are opting to have only minimial insurance coverage.  If someone chooses to only carry the minimal coverage mandated by law, he is putting others at risk for any damage he may cause through the operation of his motor vehicle.  Furthermore, a recent article revealed that 25% of drivers carry ABSOLUTELY NO insurance!  Apparently the game is to obtain coverage for the sole purpose of obtaining/renewing your driver’s license, and then immediately cancel the coverage thereafter. 

Clearly, it is imperative that you obtain sufficient automobile insurance coverage to protect you and your family.  Without Uninsured/Under-Insured Motorist Coverage, you would be without any recourse if you were injured by an uninsured driver.  Conversely, if you do not carry Bodily Injury Coverage,  you could be financially devastated by having to pay for injuries you may cause someone else.

As part of an ongoing effort to give the shaft to Florida consumers, a bill was recently filed with the Florida Legislature which would greatly restrict – or even eliminate – the rights of property owners attempting to properly repair damage caused to their homes by sinkhole activity.  Senate Bill 416 (blandly titled, “Sinkhole Coverage”) is a blatant attempt to not only force property owners to repair their property in the manner chosen by Citizens Property Insurance Company, but to also relieve Citizens of any further liability if its mandate repairs fail to repair the home.

In order to understand the true malevolent nature this proposed bill, it is necessary to understand the manner by which sinkhole damaged properties are normally repaired.  If a property is deemed to have been damaged by sinkhole activity, the insurance company must then provide coverage for the cost to repair the property.  Usually, the engineering firm which initially found the sinkhole activity would set forth a recommended repair method, but then, per the Florida Statutes, the homeowner would also have a say in the manner by which the property was to be repaired.  Through this statutorily mandated consultation between the insurance company and the property owner, it was hoped that an agreeable resolution could be reached and the property repaired to the satisfaction of all.  Furthermore, the law mandates that, if the homeowner was forced to used the insurance company’s repair method, the insurance company must stand behind these repairs and if any further damage resulted or the mandated plan was not sufficient, the insurance company must come back and provide any additional  repairs necessary.

Citizens Property Insurance is now attempting to “legislate” its way out of this deal – but in an amazingly brazen way.  Per SB 416, Citizens would be able to legislatively mandate that property owners not only repair the property pursuant to Citizens’ method, but that the property owners MUST use one of Citizens’ “chosen” repair companies.  But here comes the real kicker – these repair companies must fix the property on a “fixed price” contract.  In essence, whatever cost estimate Citizens’ engineer thinks up, the third party repair company will only be paid that amount per the contract and, if the cost estimate is not accurate or the job runs over, the third party repair company must continue to repair the property and eat the difference in cost!    But wait, it gets better.  Not only does the repair company have to eat any overages in the repair costs (which almost always occur), the repair company would be legislatively mandated to “guarantee” the repairs down the road!  (Remember, it was Citizens’ engineer who made the cost/repair estimate, not the repair company.)  If the shoddy repairs set forth by Citizens fail and further damage is caused to the home – the third party repair company is stuck with having to pay for the damage – and Citizens gets to walk away with no exposure!   Under the new proposal, despite Citizens being able to force its version of the repairs upon the property owner, Citizens’ only exposure for these repairs – even if the repairs catastropically fail (think Dunedin) – is paying the initial cost estimate set forth by its own engineer.

Now, let’s take this one logical step further.  If Citizens knows that its only exposure is paying the repair cost estimated by its engineer, and Citizens is the entity that pays the engineer….how long will it be before this engineer starts getting pressure to “under-estimate” the repair protocols?  It would be a great deal for Citizens – if its engineer can look at a repair job that should cost $50,000, but instead the engineer gives the opinion that the repair cost should only be $30,000 – that would be all Citizens would have to pay!  And hey, when the expenses hit their true value during the repair of the property, it is the third party repair company that has to pick up the tab – no matter what the cost!  What a deal!  Heck – why not just estimate the cost of repair at a dollar – by law, that is all Citizens would then have to pay!

Clearly, Senate Bill 416 is not good for Florida consumers – or even repair companies for that matter!  During the upcoming legislative session, it is important that all Florida property owners make sure that their elected officials fight for the rights of their constituents and not allow insurance company lobbyists to have their way in Tallahassee.

By now, most Floridians have heard about – or even experienced – the incredible spike in flood insurance premiums that are coming their way due to the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act.  In short, the Biggert-Waters act is a new federal law which attempts to address a $24 billion dollar deficit in the coffers of the National Flood Insurance Program by raising flood insurance rates across the board.

Unfortunately, the slipshod manner by which this law was enacted is going to have a catastrophic affect on the economy of Florida and the financial future of many Floridians.  The Tampa Bay Times wrote just the other day about a Seminole couple who was looking down the barrel at a 900 percent increase in their flood insurance premium.  Contrary to the initial thoughts of many, Florida is not known for incurring large amounts of flood losses.  In fact, many studies have shown that Floridians have only received about $1 in claim payouts for every $4 that Floridians have paid into the federal flood insurance program.  Despite not having a large amount of historical claims, Florida does stand out as having the most overall flood policies issued – over 2 million policies and counting.  Because of the sheer number of these policies, Florida must bear the brunt of the steep rise in premiums.

But – even if the Feds have thrown Florida under the bus, help may be on the way from our Florida legislature.   State Senator Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg has said that he is close to filing a bill that would encourage private insurance companies to offer flood insurance in Florida.  Normally, flood insurance is not provided under your normal homeowner’s insurance policy and must be purchased separately through the federal flood insurance program.  This new proposed legislation would encourage private insurance companies to offer an alternative to the federal flood coverage by making changes in the residential “surplus lines” insurance market.  In general, surplus lines insurance carriers are not as regulated as “normal” insurance carriers and are not subject to many of Florida’s laws and requirements (including rate regulation).  Lloyds of London, for instance, is a surplus lines carrier, as opposed to State Farm Florida Insurance Company, which is a “non-surplus lines” insurance company and therefore subject to the laws and regulations of Florida.

It has become clear that any relief for Florida property owners will have to come from reforms at the State level as opposed to waiting for the Federal government to take action.  Considering the large available market for the issuance of private flood insurance policies and the relatively low occurrence of flood claims, Florida may well turn out to be quite a profitable endeavor for a private insurance carrier willing to take on the risk.