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Contractors, attorneys and public adjusters say pending insurance reforms will hurt policyholders – Sun Sentinel

With Florida’s legislature poised to enact yet another package of insurance reforms this spring, members of industries whose incomes will be hurt by the measures lashed out at a contractor trade show on Friday, accusing insurers of prioritizing profits over people.

As exhibitors packed the main hall, panelists gathered for a series of discussions in a huge adjacent conference room, highlighting what they characterized as abusive behavior by insurers. Although the discussions were billed as including Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody and Melanie Griffin, secretary of Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation, neither participated. Also absent were representatives of Florida’s insurance industry to counter assertions made from the stage.

The Win the Storm Conference & Trade Show at the Greater Fort Lauderdale Broward County Convention Center featured an exhibit hall packed with the types of businesses that help homeowners rebuild after hurricanes.

Presented by the trade group Storm Ventures Group, the show’s exhibitors included water damage restoration contractors, solar power installers, construction materials suppliers, roofing contractors, estimating software providers and more.

Attendees also included plaintiffs attorneys and public adjusters — occupations that policyholders have long turned to when they suspect insurers of lowballing damage estimates or denying coverage altogether.

All three industries are finding themselves unable to stop legislative bills they say are intended to reduce incentives for plaintiffs attorneys to sue insurance companies on behalf of policyholders or repair contractors.

The reforms are long-sought by insurers who say excessive and frivolous lawsuits have been bleeding them of capital needed to stay afloat. Insurers say losses have spiraled in recent years thanks to a century-old Florida law that enables attorneys to collect legal fees from insurers if a settlement exceeds insurers’ initial claims offer, but shields them from paying insurers’ legal fees if a lawsuit is unsuccessful.

Insurers say exploitation of the one-way attorney fee law has made Florida the nation’s top state for insurance lawsuits.

Attorneys counter that without the one-way fee, attorneys won’t take cases involving relatively small claims because a recovery of 30% to 35% of the final award won’t be enough to justify the amount of time involved.

“What I’ve been able to do in the past will be much more difficult to do in the future,” said Chip Merlin, a Tampa-area plaintiffs attorney.

In 2022, Florida lawmakers eliminated the one-way attorney fee law for homeowner insurance claims, but they warned it would take at least 18 months for policyholders to see rates stabilize.

Bills making their way through the Legislature this spring would also eliminate the one-way attorney fee law for automobile and liability claims and personal injury claims. Senate and House versions of the bills have passed through required committees and the full House passed its version on Friday.

A Senate version of the bill is scheduled for debate by the Banking and Insurance Committee on March 22. Debate has not yet been scheduled for a companion House bill.

Speakers in three discussions on the convention center’s main stage on Friday hit back at charges that attorneys, contractors and public adjusters bear most of the blame for rising premiums and insurance company failures.

Two Hurricane Ian victims told of bouncing from temporary home to temporary home, waiting for their insurers to pay them to rebuild.

Guylyn Demeyere said the original estimate of $900,000 to repair her home has since been slashed in half. She and her husband have spent nearly $50,000 on living expenses while awaiting their settlement check. Her roof trusses are bent out of shape and a tree still sits against her house where it fell, said Joseph Kriner, her public adjuster.

Tammy Clemens said she was ignored by her insurer until she hired a public adjuster to help with her claim.

Doug Quinn, executive director for the American Policyholder Association, a nonprofit insurance industry watchdog whose members include attorneys, public adjusters and restoration contractors said his association investigated and verified reports that insurers for two Florida carriers illegally revised damage estimates submitted by independent adjusters working for the carriers on Hurricane Ian claims.

Independent adjusters differ from public adjusters. Independent adjusters are hired temporarily by insurers after hurricanes or other catastrophes strike to help manage large numbers of claims.

Public adjusters are hired by policyholders to help understand their policies and negotiate settlements with insurers.

The independent adjusters cited by Quinn claimed that insurers slashed the repair-cost estimates in their submissions to the companies by reducing the amount of damage documented — sometimes by more than half — but left the adjusters’ names on the estimates.

A recent story in the Washington Post documented allegations by five independent adjusters who worked on more than 100 claims for Heritage Property & Casualty and Florida Peninsula. The two insurers did not respond to the Post’s request for comment about the story.

On its Facebook page, the American Policyholder Association said it worked closely with the Post “for months” on the story.

The Post analyzed 13 estimates submitted by the adjusters and revised versions after changes were made by the insurers, the story said. A dozen of the estimates had been reduced by 45 to 97 percent, the story said. In one of the cases, the adjuster estimated that a house would require nearly $500,000 to repair. Adjusters working for the unidentified insurer reduced that estimate to about $13,000 the story said.

One of the adjusters said he submitted 44 claims to Heritage and “every single one” was altered “to the point where [the adjuster] didn’t recognize them,” he was quoted as saying.

Steven Michael Bush, a Jacksonville-based plaintiffs attorney at the conference, noted that several of the revised estimates that the adjusters say were altered each said 144 tiles were damaged. “When you start seeing patterns, that’s intentional. An intentional act to not pay.”

The Post story did not determine whether the 13 claims it analyzed were typical of the industry’s treatment of more than 700,000 claims filed by Hurricane Ian victims. That’s because such an analysis would be nearly impossible. Insurance claims are confidential under Florida law and insurance regulators rarely release studies analyzing insurers’ claims-handling practices.

Of the Ian claims filed in Florida, 79.8% of the Ian claims have been closed, according to data on the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation website. They included 384,861 claims closed with payments, and 179,998 closed with no payment. Typically claims are closed without payment when insurers determine damage costs did not meet the policyholder’s deductible or were not covered losses.

On Friday, Quinn said his organization planned to submit evidence of fraudulent behavior by insurers to Florida authorities, including the Department of Financial Services. “We have caught them actively committing criminal fraud to cheat people like this,” he said.

In Fort Myers on Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said state authorities are investigating reports of policyholders being “shortchanged” and vowed that “anyone should be held accountable who is not meeting their obligations that they owe to their folks.”

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At the conference, Quinn disputed insurers’ claims that excessive lawsuits or free roof scams by contractors were to blame for high premiums and insurer bankruptcies.

Instead, he blamed insurers’ greed, pointing to a December Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times report that top executives at Florida-based insurance companies paid themselves millions of dollars in compensation packages and stock dividends during years without hurricanes.

Merlin called on Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody to prosecute insurance companies who fail to properly compensate policyholders. He charged Republican lawmakers who are spearheading pro-insurer reforms with trying to prevent policyholder advocates like attorneys and public adjusters from holding insurers responsible.

As a fellow Republican, Merlin said, “I hate seeing Republican leaders doing stuff like this.”

Staff writer Anthony Man contributed to this report. Ron Hurtibise covers business and consumer issues for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. He can be reached by phone at 954-356-4071, on Twitter @ronhurtibise or by email at rhurtibise@sunsentinel.com.

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