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Legislature’s report on Florida insurance lawsuits is mixed

Long-awaited study finds signs of potential fraud in South Florida, but also indications of bad practices by insurers.
 
The bridge leading from Fort Myers to Pine Island, Fla., is seen heavily damaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian on Pine Island, Fla., Oct. 1, 2022.
The bridge leading from Fort Myers to Pine Island, Fla., is seen heavily damaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian on Pine Island, Fla., Oct. 1, 2022. [ GERALD HERBERT | AP ]
Published Jan. 8|Updated Jan. 8

TALLAHASSEE — For years, insurance companies and state lawmakers have blamed lawsuits for driving Floridians’ homeowners insurance premiums to the highest in the nation.

A new long-awaited study commissioned by the Legislature supports that — somewhat.

An analysis of 58,395 insurance claims that led to lawsuits in 2022 found that a disproportionate number were filed in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, an indication of potentially fraudulent or abusive practices there.

And those litigated claims were more than six times more expensive than claims that did not lead to a lawsuit, which could contribute to higher premiums.

“We clearly had a litigation issue going on in this state,” said Florida Insurance Commissioner Mike Yaworsky, whose office collected the data and issued the report, posted online over the weekend. “This high disparity exists that ultimately everyone in the state is paying for, or has been paying for.”

But the report does not match the rhetoric from Gov. Ron DeSantis and insurance companies that frivolous or abusive lawsuits were causing record losses and soaring premiums. Lawmakers in four legislative sessions have made it successively harder to sue insurance companies, which has not resulted in lower premiums. Among the changes brought by legislators: Policyholders now have to pay their own attorneys fees if suing an insurer.

The 58,395 litigated claims the state studied made up less than 8% of all insurance claims closed in 2022, and less than 1% of the 7.2 million policies in effect that year.

And those litigated claims cost insurance companies about $580 million — out of the nearly $16 billion Floridians paid in premiums that year.

The data also indicates that some lawsuits were filed because of insurers’ bad practices. The longer an insurance company took to close a claim, the likelier it was that a policyholder would sue, Yaworsky said.

“That’s a sign consumers aren’t getting what they wanted or what they expected,” he said.

The data “paints a drastically different picture” than what the insurance industry tells lawmakers, said Sen. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, a lawyer by trade who bucked her party by voting against the limits on lawsuits against insurers.

“It is now clear; the insurance industry fabricated their arguments and data over the past few years to manufacture a crisis and push for various legislative reforms,” she said in a statement.

“The industry has defrauded the public and the Legislature in an effort to not have to pay out claims for what homeowners are owed.”

Data still missing

State regulators were required to collect the data under a 2021 bill approved by DeSantis. Starting in January last year, property insurance companies were required to report detailed information on claims, from how much they were paying in attorneys fees to the names of the lawyers policyholders were hiring to represent them in court. No other state collects equivalent data, Yaworsky said.

As Floridians saw their insurance premiums continue to rise, lawmakers expressed frustration that the study was taking so long to be produced.

The release was delayed because insurance companies either missed the deadline to produce the information or didn’t produce it properly, Yaworsky said, requiring “exhaustive” follow-ups with the companies. His office fined 13 insurers a total of $38,000 for missing the deadline.

Even still, insurance companies didn’t produce vast amounts of information about their claims. Out of 291,155 hurricane claims closed in 2022 — by far the most common type of claim that year — nearly 18% did not state whether it led to a lawsuit. Out of 172,295 windstorm or hailstorm claims closed, nearly 23% didn’t state whether it was litigated.

Despite repeated follow-ups with insurers for the missing data, the office eventually gave up and decided to publish what it had, Yaworsky said. He chalked it up to poor record-keeping by insurers, which often employ outside law firms to handle lawsuits. He expected more complete data to be reported in future years, as insurers get used to the process.

“We were very starkly clear that this data was expected,” he said.

Disparities among counties

The data indicates that some litigation could be frivolous or fraudulent. In Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, the rate of closed claims that were litigated was 27.5%, even though the area was not hit by a hurricane in 2022.

The Central Florida counties Seminole, Orange, Lake and Osceola were also higher than average, at 9.9%. In all other counties combined, the average was 5.4%. (Hillsborough County was 7.75% and Pinellas County was 6.28%.)

Yaworsky couldn’t definitively say what was happening in South Florida to cause such a high rate of litigation.

Insurance companies have said some lawyers conspire with contractors and public adjusters to file frivolous lawsuits. Last month, state officials arrested one prominent contractor on a charge he artificially inflated a roof claim.

Insurers reported that 58% of the policyholders who sued them used a public adjuster.

Former state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who co-sponsored the 2021 legislation, said insurance companies had long known that the rate of litigation was higher in South Florida.

“Everyone knows Miami-Dade is a problematic region,” he said. “I think the bigger question is, what do we do about it? And is the state focusing on issues in this area?”

The data does shoot down one of the claims by insurers and business groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce. Those groups have complained for years that plaintiffs’ lawyers can ask to have their attorneys fees doubled by a judge, known as a contingency fee multiplier, which they said incentivizes frivolous cases.

The data shows it’s a nonissue: The multiplier was awarded four times in 2022.

Litigation was never the sole reason for Floridians’ sky-high insurance premiums, Yaworsky said. The state went 12 years without a storm until 2017, a period in which insurers were enormously profitable. Many went out of business anyway, with regulators routinely blaming mismanagement and fraud by the insurers for the failures. Litigation has not been cited as the cause of a single insurer failure.

But he said, litigation was part of the puzzle. Storms and the increasing cost of reinsurance, which insurers buy to pay out storm claims, have also driven up rates.,