In Tampa Bay, the cost of replacing a broken windshield isn't just parts and labor — increasingly, it also includes legal fees. The bay area is ground-zero for lawsuits brought by auto glass repair companies against insurers over the fair price of a windshield repair.
It's also home to the surprisingly small group facilitating this proliferation.
Last year, companies with "glass" or "windshield" in their name brought 24,000 lawsuits against insurers, according to a database maintained by the Florida Department of Financial Services. About 76 percent of that caseload was brought by just 10 lawyers. Six of them are based in the Tampa Bay area.
"We're fighting for the average glass shops out there trying to keep them in business," said Ron Haynes, a lawyer based in Tampa.
Haynes had the third-highest number of cases in the state last year (2,465). He was the only one of the six Tampa Bay lawyers who agreed to talk with the Tampa Bay Times about their role in these disputes.
He and the other five litigate what are known as "assignment of benefits" cases for auto glass replacements. His clients are small- and medium-sized auto glass companies both in and out of network with insurers. They either seek out or are hired by drivers with damaged windshields.
Windshield repairs are free for Florida drivers, who can sign over their legal right to talk with their insurer to the repair company so the two can settle billing.
Lawyers come into the picture when the insurer and repair company disagree on the repair price. The auto glass companies sue to get what they consider a fair rate. For Haynes' clients, that is the recommended National Auto Glass Specifications rate.
But insurers often don't want to pay that, Haynes said.
"Unfortunately, insurance companies are taking a strong position on auto glass in terms of claim payment," Haynes said. "They're really insisting that everybody replace auto glass at a significant discount."
Insurers say the end goal for the lawyers and repair companies isn't a fair rate — it's getting to a courtroom.
"The explanation for the relatively high number of lawsuits over relatively small dollar amounts is an incentive to make money," said Michael Carlson, president of the Personal Insurance Federation of Florida, a trade group of major home and auto insurance companies in the state.
That incentive, Carlson said, is that under state law, the insured driver's legal fees are paid if they win. Since the driver signed over their legal rights to the repair company, the company's lawyer collects those fees. According to William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, that provision is meant to even the playing field for regular consumers who must go up against well-funded companies in court.
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"It's not meant to benefit a third-party corporate vendor," Large said. The institute regularly advocates against the lawyer fee statute, citing it as the reason for the proliferation of lawsuits.
The lawsuits began picking up around 2013, jumping from just 1,389 in 2012, according to the Florida Department of Financial Services.
The dispute isn't just insider baseball. Because the repair companies are acting on the drivers' behalf, the driver is named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit. The real-world consequences for drivers are that their rates can go up if their insurer decides the lawsuit makes them a riskier customer.
Haynes, the Tampa lawyer, said it is tantamount to bullying and discourages people from pursuing a legitimate legal grievance.
"That's once again an attempt to intimidate and villainize assignment of benefits," he said. "Rates shouldn't go up at all."
There isn't consensus on a workable compromise. Insurers argue that having to pay the attorney fee is the issue. But Bill Newton, deputy director of the Florida Consumer Action Network, said any solution needs to preserve consumers' rights — in this case, to have their legal fees paid if they challenge an insurer.
"It gives consumers access to the courts," Newton said. "Without that, we have no access."
Contact Malena Carollo at email@example.com or (727) 892-2249. Follow @malenacarollo.
Top auto glass lawyers in Tampa Bay for 2017
- Anthony T. Prieto, Tampa: 2,849 cases, No. 2 in Florida
- Ron Haynes, Tampa: 2,465 cases, No. 3 in Florida
- Marc Nussbaum, St. Petersburg: 1,399 cases, No. 6 in Florida
- Christopher Calkin, Tampa: 1,161 cases, No. 7 in Florida
- Jason Lamoureux, Brandon: 946 cases, No. 8 in Florida
- Lee Davis, Clearwater: 847 cases, No. 9 in Florida
Anthony T. Prieto, Tampa: 2,849 cases, No. 2 in Florida
Ron Haynes, Tampa: 2,465 cases, No. 3 in Florida
Marc Nussbaum, St. Petersburg: 1,399 cases, No. 6 in Florida
Christopher Calkin, Tampa: 1,161 cases, No. 7 in Florida
Jason Lamoureux, Brandon: 946 cases, No. 8 in Florida
Lee Davis, Clearwater: 847 cases, No. 9 in Florida