Policyholders are often shocked to learn that the loss settlement check they receive from the insurance company is payable not only to the policyholder, but to their mortgage company as well.   Homeowners insurance policies are broken down into several types of coverage – whether for the building, personal property, liability, alternative living expense, or other losses.  For certain types of coverage, the insurance policy will list the mortgage company as an “additional payee” on the policy – which means that the mortgage company’s name must be listed on any loss settlement check.  

The reason the mortgage company is listed as an “additional payee” on the insurance policy is that the mortgage company has a vested interest in insurance coverage payments issued for any loss to the insured property.  The mortgage company presumably loaned money to the policyholder and, in order to provide a guarantee of repayment, the policyholder agreed to grant the bank a mortgage on the property as collateral for the loan.  

Should the subject property be damaged or destroyed, the unrepaired property would then be worth less than before the loss and therefore, the mortgage company would not have the same amount of security for the loan as prior to the loss.  In order to protect the mortgage company’s security for the loan, the mortgage company’s name will appear on all insurance loss payments related to the property given as collateral for the loan.  Because the property protects the mortgage company in case of non-payment of the loan by the policyholder, the mortgage holder has a strong interest in making sure the property is either repaired or the outstanding loan is paid down to a point at which the loan is again fully secured by the value of the property.

The inclusion of the mortgage company’s name on the insurance check usually just affects coverage relating to the actual building on the property, since the home is usually given as collateral for the mortgage loan.  On the other hand, claims for damage to personal property, liability, or loss of use do not relate to property subject to a mortgage and therefore settlement checks on these losses would not have to include mortgage company’s name as an additional payee.

do-i-really-need-flood-insuranceMost people believe that when they buy homeowner’s or commercial property insurance that they will be covered for any damage that may occur to their property.  Unfortunately, as many people have painfully learned during recent flooding events, the normal policy of homeowner’s property insurance does NOT provide coverage for damage caused by “rising water” or flood.  This realization often comes too late for property owners and only after catastrophic damage has occurred to their property due to a flooding event.

The usual policy of homeowner’s insurance will only cover storm related water damage if it is caused by “wind blown” water, as opposed to “rising” water.  A good example of “wind blown” water would be water that comes through a broken window or a roof opening caused by the storm.  On the other hand, damage caused by the buildup of rain water which eventually enters the structure and causes flooding-type damage would not be covered under the standard policy of homeowner’s insurance.

As can be easily imagined, disputes often arise between property owners and their insurance companies over whether damage was caused by “rising” water as opposed to “wind blown” water.  The property insurance company, obviously, would like to prove that the damage is from a flood event – and thereby not covered under its insurance policy – whereas the property owner would advocate that the damage was the result of water entering through an opening in the structure and thereby covered under the policy.

The best and safest course of action is for all property owners to obtain both property insurance and flood insurance – regardless of whether or not their structure is located in a flood zone.  If you ever find yourself in a dispute with your property insurance company as to whether your damage is covered under your insurance policy, it is best to seek the advice of an attorney who specializes in property insurance claim matters.

Lightning StrikesAlthough it doesn’t get the same attention as Florida’s other natural disasters, lightning damage led to more than 10,000 insurance claims in Florida over the past year.  Florida ranks first in the nation for both injuries caused by lightning strikes and insurance claims caused by lightning related damage. The estimated total property damage caused by lightning over the past year in Florida was nearly 74 million dollars.

Although it is impossible to predict when and where lightning will strike, it is possible to reduce the risk of lightning damage.  By installing a lightning protection system, you can essentially “ground” your property and thereby allow the damaging lightning to dissipate into the ground.  Although such systems are not perfectly reliable, they do lessen the risk of damage to your property by keeping the electricity away from the building materials which can’t handle the full force of the lightning.  Many experts also recommend the installation of lightning rods and the use of surge protectors on any electronics.

Even with such precautions, it only takes one direct lightning strike for your entire structure to go up in flames.  As always, it is important to verify that you have the appropriate property insurance coverage to protect you in case Mother Nature decides to pay your house a visit.  Should you have questions regarding what coverage may be available under your property insurance policy, contact an experienced insurance claims attorney and discuss what options are available to you under your insurance policy.

 

 

The University of Florida Gators were scheduled to play football against the University of Idaho Vandals on August 30, 2014 in what was to be the Gators season home opener in Gainesville, Florida.  The football game was initially scheduled to begin at 7:00 p.m., but due to heavy rains and lightning, the start of the game was repeatedly delayed and ultimately began around 10:00 p.m.  After the first play of the game – Idaho kicking off to the Gators – additional lightning appeared and forced the eventual cancellation of the game.  Although the two teams could have potentially rescheduled this game for a bye-week later in the season, officials from both schools ultimately decided against it.

So – all of that is nice, but what does it have to do with insurance you say?  Well, due to the financial acumen of UF Athletic Director Jeremy Foley, the Florida Gators have always maintained an insurance policy to cover any loss in ticket revenue should a game be cancelled.  Prior to each home game, the University provides its insurer, Lloyd’s of London, with an estimate of both prospective ticket sales and any potential losses.  If a game is cancelled or if the University otherwise incurs a total loss of ticket revenue for a game, the insurance carrier pays the University for this loss.

Since the football game between Florida and Idaho was cancelled, the University refunded the purchase price to all ticket holders and placed a claim against Lloyd’s of London for the revenue the University stood to make on these ticket sales.  End result?  Although the score of the actual football game ended at 0-0, the University of Florida still walked away with a cool $1,800,000.00.

 

Over the past few months, many Citizens Property Insurance policy holders received a notification that, unless they opted out within a certain time frame, their property insurance would be automatically transferred out of Citizens and into one of several small start-up insurance companies.  These newly formed property insurance carriers have been nick-named “take-out” companies because their sole source of new business is to take over property insurance policies that have been transferred out of Citizens.  This process has created a love/love relationship between Citizens and these new insurance companies as, through the transfer of policies out of Citizens and into these new start-ups, Citizens can further its goal of depopulating its customer base and the new start-ups get “free” customers without having to market for same.

Of course, all is not rosy for the actual policy holder.  As a recent report reflected, the recent crop of small, in-state property insurance companies have no record of withstanding the losses associated with a major hurricane and have not fared well with insurance industry rankings.  In fact, these new companies only average a “C-minus” rating by Weiss Ratings and 11 of these companies have failed since 2006 – without even having a major storm or hurricane to drive up the claims!  According to the new Weiss Ratings, 19 of the 48 Florida-based property insurance companies received a rating of “D-minus” or worse, which is eye-opening in light of the fact that Florida homeowners pay about $6 billion dollars a year to these companies and we haven’t had a large scale insurable event in over a decade.

The take away is that, although you may not be thrilled with the coverage or level of service that you may be getting from Citizens Property Insurance, you had better think twice about switching to one of the new take-out companies.  Despite all of its problems, Citizens does not have the failure risk of the small private companies and Citizens will always have the money to pay claims – even though it may take years to do so!

Yes, dear reader, the above title is correct.  A Florida Appellate Court actually had to rule that your homeowner’s insurance is not responsible to pay for damage caused by the “sudden explosion” of someone’s body.  If you don’t believe me, you can read the actual opinion here.

Per the facts of the case, Ms. Rodrigo filed a lawsuit against State Farm Insurance Company for the damage caused to her condominium unit by blood and bodily fluids that had leaked into her unit from the above unit.  Apparently, an elderly lady living above Ms. Rodrigo passed away and, since no one discovered the body for a long period of time, the body began to bloat and decay –  to the point that the gasses inside the corpse built up enough pressure and the body’s abdomen burst.  The sudden “bursting” of her body released gases and fluids which, per Mr. Rodrigo’s claim, leaked into Mr. Rodrigo’s unit and caused damage to her personal items and….well….certain smells.  (I’ll ignore the parts about the deceased lady having several hungry dogs in the unit and the manner by which those dogs kept their hunger at bay during this time.)

The issue then became how to pay for the damage caused by this yucky stuff.  The subject insurance policy was a “named peril” policy, which only provided coverage for causes of loss that are specifically listed in the policy.  After noting that there was no coverage for gooey bodily fluids, Ms. Rodrigo tried to obtain coverage under the named peril of “explosion” – apparently keeping a straight face while doing so.  At trial, she presented testimony from a doctor that the contents of the deceased’s body, after undergoing advanced decomposition, “explosively expanded and leaked”.  She argued that since there had been an “explosion” of the deceased’s organs – surely it would qualify as damage caused by an “explosion” under the terms of the insurance policy.

Needless to say, neither the trial court nor the appellate court (Really??  You actually appealed this to a higher court!) agreed with this interpretation.

 

 

tornado-damage-floridaOver the last few days, Central Florida has been pounded by torrential rain, tornadoes and high winds.  These damaging windstorms and tornados were especially violent in Manatee, Sarasota, Lee, Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties.  These thunder storms caused flooding in Shore Acres, wind damage in Siesta Key, and claimed the lives of two people in Duette.  Now that the storms have past, we are left to deal with the damage done by this weather event.  Fortunately, most people have homeowners insurance to help pay for the damage to their property, but as we have often seen, going through the insurance claim process can be a world of heartache all its own.

After the storm or tornado has past and/or the flood waters have receded, you should immediately contact your insurance company and place them on notice of your claim.  The sooner you start the insurance claim process, the better chance all parties have of accurately calculating your damage and the cost to repair same. You should also take whatever ever steps you can to mitigate the damage caused to your property and otherwise take action to keep additional damage from occurring.  You should also, to the best of your ability, make a listing of the damaged property.  Although making a listing of your damaged property can be difficult – especially when the items are missing or totally destroyed – you are the best person to know the extent of your property.  If you can’t properly itemize your lost or damaged property, most likley the insurance company will not reimbuse you for same.

After a storm or other weather event, you may also have to deal with emergency restoration companies.  These companies will come to your house soon after the damage occurs and will do the immediate repairs or restoration that may be necessary to protect your home from further damage.  These services usually include the placement of large fans or other equipment to dry out your property, the installation of tarps over your damaged roof, or other similar activities.  Although these services can often be crucial for the protection of your property, always remember that these services are very expensive and that you only have a certain amount of money under your insurance policy limits with which to repair your home.  If large sums of your policy limits are spent on these initial emergency repairs, you run the risk of not having sufficient funds remaining to repair the remainder of your home.  Therefore, it is always important to obtain an agreed upon written estimate of the work prior to the performance of same.

Lastly, it is important to remember the difference between flood insurance and wind insurance.  Your normal policy of property insurance does not cover flood damage – meaning damage caused by “rising water”, but will only cover damage caused by water which was “blown into” your home by wind.  For instance, if your property was damaged by water that had been blown in through a window or a damaged roof, your normal homeowners policy would cover it.  If the damage was caused by water rising from a nearby creek, your homeowner’s policy would not cover the damage.  It is crucial that you understand the coverages available to you prior to authorizing any repair work to your home.  If you authorize a contractor to dry out your home after a flood and then realize that you do not have flood insurance – you will be on the hook to pay the contractor out of your own pocket!

As always, should you have any questions regarding what coverage may be available to you under your insurance policy, please feel free to contact our office and we will do our best to answer any questions you may have regarding your property damage claim.

 

It may come as a surprise to many homeowners, but you may be able to substantially reduce your homeowner’s property insurance premiums by just looking through the provisions of your policy.  Specifically, most homeowner’s insurance policies set forth numerous premium “credits” for which you can qualify based upon the age and condition of your home.  These available credits are usually listed in the documents you receive along with your annual policy renewal – you know, the stuff you never read and immediately throw away.

For instance, you may be entitled to a substantial premium discount if your roof has wind mitigation straps.  These straps literally “tie” your roof to your exterior walls and may help avoid the structural failure of your roof and walls during a high wind event.  If your home was built after 2002 or if your roof has been recently replaced, your home most likely has these straps as the use of such was mandated after the building code was amended in 2002.  You should hire a wind mitigation specialist to do an inspection and to determine whether your roof has these wind mitigation straps and whether you qualify for any other premium discounts.  These inspections usually cost between $75.00 to $100.00 – a small investment considering the reduction in premiums you may be able to obtain.

As with many things, the devil is in the details, and this process will require that you take the time to read the onerous and often-times purposefully confusing provisions of your insurance policy – but you may be able to save several hundred dollars (every year!) in homeowner’s insurance premiums.  Better in your pocket than in your insurance company’s wallet!  As always, should you have any questions regarding your insurance policy, please feel free to give our office a call.

During the 2012 Florida Legislative Session, insurance company lobbyists pushed for the passage of HB 119, which greatly overhauled the Personal Injury Protection portion of your automobile insurance policy.  As part of their sales pitch, proponents of this bill stated that the passage of this Bill would GREATLY REDUCE the cost of automobile insurance in the State of Florida and cut down on “fraud”.

As we learned years ago, “cutting down on fraud” is just another way of saying “severely reducing a policyholder’s chance of ever getting paid on his claim.”  But what about the claimed reduction in the cost of auto insurance premiums?  Surely insurance companies have lowered their automobile insurance rates in exchange for HB 119’s severe limitation of the rights of policy holders…..right?

Well, the Office of Insurance Regulation announced this week that the cost of Personal Injury Protection coverage is expected to drop an average of 13.2 percent in Florida.  Great you say!!!  But then the fine print – since this “no fault”/ Personal Injury Protection coverage accounts for such a small percentage of your overall automobile coverage, the overall decrease in your overall policy would be about 1.2 percent!!  Not a very good reduction in exchange for the severe limitations this new law places on the rights of policy holders.

Once again, it appears Florida’s elected officials have fallen for the insurance companies’ old yarn of “Allow us to restrict coverage today, and we promise to reduce premiums…..tomorrow….maybe.”

 Sadly, although we knew that Citizens Property Insurance Corporation is overrun with corruption, recent news reflects that even we did not know how bad the situation has gotten.  Although the formation of Citizens Property Insurance may have initially been a good idea, it has since morphed into merely a “cash grab” for cronies of Governor Rick Scott and others who know how to work the “system”.

Charles Elmore of the Palm Beach Post recently wrote an excellent article regarding Citizens’ hiring of a West Palm Beach Lawyer and agreeing to pay him $6.5 million dollars – despite the fact that he has no property insurance experience, has by far the highest billable rate, and came in third in all objective rankings.  We have provided the article, in its entirety, below and recommend you read to the end in order to fully appreciate how “insiders” laugh as they bilk the policyholders of Florida:

West Palm lawyer’s fees soar above Citizens rivals

Critics say ties to state officials, costs don’t pass ‘smell test’

By Charles Elmore – Palm Beach Post Staff Writer 

No competitor came close to the $525 per hour fees of a West Palm Beach lawyer whose firm won a contract for more than $6 million from state-run insurer Citizens in December, bidding records examined by The Palm Beach Post show.

The next highest hourly fee, among nine firms bidding from as far away as California: $360.

Citizens executives say the money is well spent if Scott Link and colleagues help the company settle or fight 13,000 claims lawsuits more efficiently without necessarily setting foot in a courtroom, by directing strategy for other lawyers the company already pays. In an interview with Citizens, Link said his role is like “the mover of the chess pieces.”

Not everyone thinks Citizens has check-mated wasteful spending with this deal.

“It doesn’t pass the smell test,” said Jay Neal, president and CEO of the Florida Association for Insurance Reform, a Fort Lauderdale-based advocacy group that includes industry and consumer representatives. “You could bring this in-house and save a lot of money. One of the most important things this company has to do is retain public trust.”

Ackerman, Link & Sartory cited no particular expertise in property insurance before applying in 2012 for the first of two contracts that together stand to pay the firm more than $8 million. In its applications, the firm saw no need to disclose ties to former Citizens President Tom Grady, an ally of Gov. Rick Scott, and Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater as potential conflicts.

Records show it finished third of nine bidders in initial scoring by a Citizens evaluation panel for the first contract based on written applications, barely making the cut for interviews. Then it soared to the top after an interview lasting less than 30 minutes.

The compensation stands out at a company criticized for weak oversight on spending by, among others, Gov. Scott’s own inspector general.

Scott Link’s projected billing of more than $1 million a year under the contract is more than triple the $300,000 pay of Citizens president and CEO Barry Gilway, who oversees the entire company. Citizens is Florida’s largest property insurer serving more than 1 million customers.

A draft contract, not yet signed, provides for additional billing at $262.50 per hour for Link’s travel time. That is on top of any travel reimbursements such as hotels or meals, a Citizens spokesman said.

The firm’s job is to serve as “coordinating counsel,” overseeing strategy on lawsuits involving claims from sinkholes to water damage, cases in which Citizens already pays other attorneys.

No ethical concerns

In its application, Ackerman, Link & Sartory said it had no ethics conflicts to disclose concerning Citizens. Not mentioned: former Citizens president Tom Grady had a business relationship with the West Palm Beach law firm, which paid him as recently as 2010, according to Grady’s state financial disclosures.

Grady, a friend and Naples neighbor of Gov. Scott, was interim Citizens president in 2012 when solicitation began for the first of two contracts Link’s firm ultimately won. Those contracts were for a high-paying role that had not existed before at Citizens, and they were handled as “expedited” bids in a speeded-up process.

“This is an emergency contract there was no need for,” said state Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, a public adjuster who has been an outspoken critic of the deal. “This was an inside job.”

Citizens executives dispute that, saying the arrangement was properly bid and stands to benefit the company by helping it handle cases better. That can mean settling some cases quickly, fighting more effectively on others or working with front-line employees to avoid future problems, they say.

Benefit to Citizens argued

Information presented in support of the firm’s work coordinating sinkhole claims said the average amount paid per lawsuit dropped to about $120,000 during the firm’s tenure, compared with more than $140,000 in 2011. Citizens General Counsel Dan Sumner said if a third of the 10,000 pending non-sinkhole cases were resolved on terms the company considers favorable, it could save $97 million in litigation costs over the life of the contract.

Artiles scoffed at such claims at a board meeting last month, saying the company was still losing about half of the very small percentage of sinkhole cases that go to trial and estimating it could save $50 million in litigation costs simply by paying the full claims policyholders submit.

Gilway said plaintiff attorneys would love that, but the company has an obligation to other policyholders not to pay for unwarranted claims. The Citizens president spoke out forcefully for Link in company meetings, saying in November, “We need the talents Scott Link is bringing to the table.”

Another partner in the firm, Wendy Link, is projected to bill $50,000 a year under the deal. She serves on the Florida Atlantic University search committee considering candidates for FAU president including Atwater, who interviewed for the university job Friday but was not named one of three finalists. Atwater appoints Citizens board members and, along with Scott and other top state officials, oversees the company’s management.

Wendy Link listed Grady and Atwater as her first two references for an appointment to the Florida Board of Governors in 2011, records provided by the governor’s office show.

Link told The Post last week she disclosed potential conflicts including the reference and the Citizens contract to FAU and state officials, who “encouraged me to continue my service to the Search Committee.”

As for other questions, she said, “Our firm has always had a commitment to our clients not to discuss any issues regarding our clients with the media unless the client specifically requests that we do so.”

Meeting with Atwater

Two days before Citizens approved the contract Dec. 13, Atwater organized a meeting in his office that included Scott Link, records show. The participants included a homeowner advocate and the only discussion was “to make sure Floridians are getting the claims assistance they deserve,” an Atwater spokesman said.

Despite protests from Rep. Artiles, Citizens board member John Wortman, appointed by Scott, made a motion to approve the contract last month, and it passed 4-1 with two abstaining.

Any business relationship with the West Palm Beach firm had ended by the time Grady assumed his role at Citizens, so it wasn’t an issue, Citizens officials maintained. Officials said they were assured Grady received no residual compensation from the firm, and both the 2102 contract and the one now pending forbid paying fees to others firms or lawyers — including, specifically, an “of counsel” attorney.

Grady is listed in records as having served “of counsel” to the Ackerman firm. That term typically means he received compensation for services without being a partner or full-time employee.

Total payments of $6.5 million over four years to the law firm have been approved, though a final contract has not been signed, a company spokesman said.

If the justification for the contract is to save money over the long haul, is the firm’s pay tied to any specific dollar figures to be saved, or number of cases to be resolved? A draft contract provided by Citizens mentions no particular figures but says, in part, “Anticipated cost efficiencies including demonstrated savings in fees and defense costs will be measured and related to the implementation of specific strategies in order to determine the effectiveness and efficiency of the specific strategies and/or the overall claims litigation strategy in achieving the state objectives.”

‘Hope and a prayer’

Former state insurance consumer advocate Sean Shaw, a Tampa attorney who sues insurers, said, “There’s no evidence this is going to save any money. It’s a hope and a prayer.”

A spokesman for Gov. Scott said before the Dec. 13 vote, “This will be entirely up to the Citizens board and we have every expectation that they will do the right thing to protect Florida taxpayers.”

In an explanation of its ethics policy on its website, Citizens explicitly forbids senior managers from, for example, working for or entering a contractual agreement with a private insurer that receives a bonus to take Citizens customers within two years.

Neither Citizens nor the law firm saw anything in Grady’s situation they regarded as a particular ethics problem, though the company website says determining whether a course of action is ethical involves questions including “How will it look to others?” and “How will it affect Citizens’ status as a trusted decision-making entity?”

Link’s firm claimed no expertise, or even any significant experience, in property insurance or sinkholes when it applied in 2012 to win a newly created $1.5 million contract to become coordinating counsel for sinkhole claims. Instead, it emphasized experience with complex civil litigation involving brokerage and financial firms, auto insurers and phone companies.

The firm was not the initial top choice of a Citizens evaluation committee including Sumner, assistant general counsel Elaina Paskalakis and vice president of claims Lance Malcolm, records show. Based on written applications, the committee scored it No. 3.

No. 1 was Gray Robinson of Tallahassee, followed by Colodny, Fass, Talenfeld, Karlinsky, Abate of Fort Lauderdale. Those firms declined to comment for this story.

“There were others ranked higher for less money per hour?” Artiles said. “Are you kidding?”

But the Ackerman firm rocketed to the top in the interview round. In an interview lasting less than 30 minutes, Sumner told Link he had done a “good job” in the written application distinguishing between the role of coordinating counsel and that of a regular defense lawyer working on a particular case, an audiotape shows. Sumner asked him to elaborate and add “color.”

Sumner asked about fees, saying “you get what you pay for,” but the firm’s fees were high compared to other bidders. Scott Link said he would hesitate to lower fees, which he considered already “discounted” compared to other firms that charge more than $600 an hour doing similar work. That would not be fair to other clients, he said.

Malcolm asked about how the law firm could help the company’s front-line workers process sales and claims. Paskalakis had no questions.

In March, Link’s firm said it reached the limit of its previous $1.5 million contract and Citizens granted it another $100,000 per month.

Citizens emphasized experience as coordinating counsel for the broader contract awarded in late 2013, and by that time the West Palm Beach firm was bidding as an incumbent expanding its prior role.

In his 2013 interview for the bigger contract, Link was again asked if he would consider renegotiating his fees.

“I would certainly increase them if you insisted on it, but I would do it reluctantly,” he said.

People laughed. The moment of levity over, Link then repeated his position the fees were already discounted and lowering them would be unfair to other clients.