Senate panel greenlights one-way attorney fee bill

Florida water damage AOB
New language followed negotiations between supporters and opponents.

The Senate’s one-way attorney fee bill cleared the Judiciary Committee Monday on a 5-1 vote after its sponsor offered an amendment intended to at least partially salve concerns by contractors and attorneys.

The new language followed negotiations between supporters and opponents of the measure. Judiciary Chairman David Simmons, who supported the bill in the Banking and Insurance Committee despite qualms, also participated.

“He was very helpful in navigating me to what I thought would be good public policy,” bill sponsor Doug Broxson said of his colleague following the vote.

The measure (SB 122) attempts to reduce litigation involving assignment of benefits, or AOB, agreements by restricting Florida’s one-way fee to policyholders — not contractors seeking to enforce such contracts.

The law is intended to give policyholders more equitable standing with deep-pocketed carriers by requiring the latter to pay their attorney fees in claims litigation.

The bill also boosts consumer protections for policyholders and requires notice to carriers.

“I think the insurance companies have been put on notice, too. They had better sharpen their pen,” Broxson said, and “go ahead and satisfy some of these claims early on so that there will not be the kind of concerns that we heard in our meeting today.”

He referred to testimony that insurers routinely stall and underpay claims — remediation contractors and the trial bar blame for claims litigation allegedly driving up premiums.

Water-remediation contractors testifying Monday also called for licensure of their business and for limits on carriers’ use of preferred vendors, claiming they cut corners on repairs.

Broxson, a Gulf Breeze Republican, said he’s open to adding “anti-steering” language as the bill headed to the Rules Committee.

“Whether it’s part of the bill this time, I’m not sure. But we’re going to do our very best,” he said.

Committee Vice Chairman Jose Javier Rodríguez, a Miami Democrat, cast the lone ‘no’ vote.

Earlier, as a courtesy to Broxson, he’d withdrawn a series of amendments, including language that would have exempted auto glass repair shops. The bill also would cover property insurance.

Another amendment would have eliminated the bills “whereas” language presenting legislative findings regarding AOB-related litigation.

At one point, Rodriguez pointedly asked Broxson: “What specifically can we point to in the bill that allows us to go home and say, ‘We’re putting more money in your pocket as a policyholder’?”

Any savings might take time, Broxson replied. Insurers must justify any rate increases or decreases with the Office of Insurance Regulation, based on claims data.

Lobbyist Foyt Ralston, representing the Florida Association of Restoration Specialists, said he participated in negotiations over the new language but found the result “not substantially different” from the earlier version.

The “whereas” language could prove troublesome when the courts interpret the measure, he warned: “Whereas clauses are what the courts would look to as findings by the Legislature.

“There hasn’t been any official type of inquiry. There’s been testimony, but none of it has been under oath, and some of it is questionable at best,” Ralston said.

His clients would like the bill to impose formal standards on contractors and insurance adjusters. “That way, they know what they’re talking about” when negotiating claims he said.

Orlando trial attorney Tyler Chasez was unhappy, too. “Although they are trying, things are still off. There needs to be a little more baking done on this idea,” he said.

Michael Moline

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.


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