It seems simple: a legal spat over how much it costs to fix a broken windshield.
But that issue — which pits insurers and their lawyers against auto glass repair companies — has mushroomed in recent years into a major problem clogging Hillsborough County courtrooms in particular. And it shows no sign of slowing down based on figures from nonprofits and the county court.
"This is a big issue for us," said Tom Scherberger, director of communications for the Hillsborough County circuit court. "It’s a staffing challenge."
While Hillsborough does not specify windshield cases, it does track "breach of contract" cases, which include auto glass. The number of breach of contract filings with claims between $100 and $500, Scherberger said, increased from 1,265 in 2014 to 4,510 in 2017 in Hillsborough County. Claims between $500 and $2,500, too, increased from 1,131 in 2014 to 6,038 in 2017.
"Without a detailed examination of each case we cannot provide an exact number of windshield cases," he said in an email. However, "we believe the unusual increase in the cases is a direct result of windshield claims."
Hillsborough County accounts for the largest portion of such cases in the state.
The issue, also known as "assignment of benefits," is better known in the housing market, where south Florida has been front and center for what insurers describe as major industry abuse. The issue happens when a property owner gives their insurance rights to a third party, such as a repair company. That lets the repair company deal directly with the insurer for billing.
The problem ariseswhen an insurance company says that the amount the contractor is charging for a repair is too high. In that case, a contractor can take an insurer to court over the issue, racking up legal fees and pushing up the cost paid out for repair.
Auto glass companies, however, say they are heading to court so often because insurance companies refuse to treat them fairly, leaving them no other choice.
Regardless, it can push up insurance premiums for homeowners. Though they weren’t involved in the lawsuit, their name is attached because the repair company is acting on their behalf. That could lead to a higher premium.
With auto glass claims, it’s a similar pattern. The main issue, advocates say, is a "one-way" attorney fee Florida law allows. Under state law, the losing party must pay the winning party’s attorney fees, driving up the overall cost of the claim for insurers.
According to the latest figures from the Florida Justice Reform Institute, there were 23,953 glass-specific cases across Florida in 2017, up from 19,695 in 2016. Hillsborough County alone accounted for 61 percent of the 2017 cases: just under 12,000.
"The problem is just getting worse," William Large, director of the institute, said. "This is a very profitable business model for the attorneys involved in it."
Large said what is needed is legislative reform to deal with the one-way lawyer fee. The soonest that could happen is at the session beginning in March 2019.
Tracking the issue may get a little more difficult, too. Ashley Kalifeh, a consultant with the institute on the auto glass study, said that she is beginning to see evidence of auto glass companies bringing suit through billing companies they partner with or are linked to by ownership or officers.
These cases, she said, wouldn’t contain the word "glass" or "windshield" overtly until the court records themselves are examined, making it more difficult to count all cases involving auto glass assignment of benefits.
Contact Malena Carollo at [email protected] or (727) 892-2249. Follow @malenacarollo.