A significant overhaul of Florida’s property insurance laws advanced through the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Jim Boyd, a Bradenton Republican, said rising renewal costs for homeowners and property owners across Florida demand attention from the Legislature. His bill (SB 76) would eliminate multiplier fees for attorneys and allow for roofing policies that allow claims payments based on the life of the roof.
“The rising cost of property insurance in Florida has affected every one of your constituents and mine,” he said.
With major insurance companies often refusing to write new policies, domestic providers are now losing an estimated $1 billion a year. Indeed, Boyd, believes once data is available of the impacts on the industry in 2020, he thinks the sector could tally a loss of between $1.3 and $1.5 billion.
But the legislation still generated substantial debate in the committee, where discussion lasted nearly two hours.
The most controversial element had to do with the attorney fee multiplier, which drew objections from trial attorneys.
Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, pressed Boyd on whether the current process for applying such a multiplier was carefully regulated within courts, and Boyd agreed it was.
Rouson offered an amendment to carve the fee multiplier, but it was ultimately shot down. “The fee multiplier is applied in rare and exceptional circumstances,” Rouson said.
Boyd said the threat of a multiplier being used in any case prompts insurance companies to raise the costs on consumers to help cover inflated claims. The legislation does allow discretion to judges to increase fees in extraordinary situations using reasonable guidelines, but attorneys argued that’s the situation now and that the legislation attempts to fix a system that isn’t broken.
Sen. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican, pointed to cases where claimants themselves received insurance awards worth less than $200 while attorneys left with payments in the tens of thousands. Boyd said that’s the type of threat that causes insurance companies to raise rates.
Boyd, an insurance agent by trade, said an increasing number of policy holders in Florida have started to feel that pain and that in his own office many clients have complained of hikes as high as 50%.
“People have a tough time affording that,” he said.
The back and forth came during debate on a series of amendments put forward by Democrats aimed at retaining consumer rights and warning them of changes. Some combat a provision shortening the window to file claims to two years, and others called for insurers to increase the font size on documents to inform consumers about policy changes.
Boyd did agree with an amendment offered by Sen. Tina Polsky, a Broward Democrat, that would provide greater state oversight.
The changes drew concern from some consumers themselves. Joe Busby, a private property owner who frequently testifies to lawmakers on behalf of consumers, said Panhandle homeowners are still struggling to get home repairs for damage caused by Hurricane Michael in 2018.
“It’s just been a battle for all of us over there, which causes our costs just to live to go up,” Busby said.
And some attorney groups and consumer advocates expressed concern about what changes in roof replacement policies could mean for homeowners impacted by disasters who expect the full replacement cost to be covered.
The legislation allows policies that adjust claims on roofs older than a decade. David Murray, of the Florida Justice Association, said that wrongly implies roofs rapidly depreciate after 10 years when some roofs have lifespans as long as 50 years and shingle manufacturers market products they claim will last at least 25 years.
But within the insurance industry, the legislation was heralded as needed reform to Florida’s existing statute.
“The abuse of this law creates an added stressor on the insurance market, and at the end of the day, the insurance consumer sees higher rates,” said Michael Carlson, President and CEO of the Personal Insurance Federation of Florida, which applauded the bill, crediting both Boyd and co-introducer Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas Republican
“Curbing application of fee multipliers in property cases would help restore balance, and that starts with making sure they are only used under ‘rare or exceptional’ circumstances,” Carlson said. “Senator Boyd and Senator Brandes have done great work to help prioritize discussions about insurance market stressors. We thank them and the Senate Judiciary Committee for supporting these bills.”
In the House, Rep. Bob Rommel filed similar legislation (HB 305) that has yet to move.