Florida Senators agree: It’s time to put an end to auto glass lawsuits that have skyrocketed across the state over the last 12 years.
On Wednesday, the chamber voted unanimously for SB 1002, Orlando Democratic Sen. Linda Stewart’s most recent effort of a half-decade push to bring reform to the issue.
Litigation over auto glass repairs has increased 6,000% since 2011. Last year, 37,000 such claims were filed. Most came from roughly two dozen lawyers.
Proponents of the bill, including Panama City Republican Rep. Griff Griffitts, who is carrying its companion in the House, say it’s among the reasons Florida’s insurance rates have risen across several industries.
Critics, including the Florida Independent Glass Association, argue the measure will remove one of the only routes of recourse small repair shops have to be fully compensated by insurers.
Stewart said the change is long overdue.
“This bill will finally put an end to the frivolous lawsuits perpetrated by a few bad actors and modernize our laws,” she said, thanking Republican Sens. Jim Boyd, Nick DiCeglie and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis for their help ushering the measure along.
“I’ve had a lot of input on this,” she said. “We are where we are today (is) because of their efforts.”
SB 1002 would update technical terms related to auto glass and close potential legal loopholes in Florida statute. But the biggest change is a ban the bill would impose on the use of assignment of benefits (AOB) in auto glass claims.
AOB allows policyholders to grant auto repair shops the ability to file claims on their behalf and collect insurance payments without the policyholder’s involvement — something the bill’s supporters say unscrupulous lawyers and shops have capitalized on for undue financial gain.
The legislation would prohibit auto shops from offering incentives to consumers. It would also allow insurers to sell cheaper policies with deductibles for windshield damage in addition to currently required policies that include full coverage for windshield repairs and replacement.
Last week, DiCeglie amended the bill to require insurers to provide multiple shop options for each auto glass job without preference for a particular company.
That provision is meant to address concerns of “steering,” a federally prohibited act in which an insurance provider directs claimants to get their vehicles repaired by specific shops or companies.
DiCeglie said Wednesday that SB 1002 is “going to go a long way” toward reducing lawsuits and addressing the concerns small shop owners have raised when discussing auto glass giant Safelite and its unusual relationship with insurance companies.
Last week, lobbyist Jeff Johnston, who represents the Florida Independent Glass Association, said a major reason there are so many auto glass lawsuits in Florida is because of the advantage Safelite has over mom-and-pop businesses.
The company, which holds a 20% share of the market, is both an auto glass repair business and a claims handler for several major insurers in the state, and it often underpays shops that aren’t in-network.
“They answer the phone and handle the claim all the way to payment, so if (small, independent auto shops get) a job, Safelite pays their bill,” he said. “That’s a pretty unique situation, to have your biggest competitor paying your invoice.”
Asked by Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book what more could be done to protect small auto shops, Johnston said Safelite needs to “pick a lane.”
“We talk about anti-steering language, but I would argue the steering actually occurs when somebody calls their insurance company (and) Safelite answers the phone. They’re steering to Safelite, (and) I don’t know how much (more) steering you need to do if you’re actually answering the telephone,” he said.
“Maybe they should be the glass company or they should be the third-party administrator. Maybe they shouldn’t be both.”
Johnston said Zephyrhills Republican Sen. Danny Burgess, who sits on the Rules Committee and was at the Tuesday meeting, once told him about trying to get his windshield repaired and having to “fight for 10 minutes” on the phone with a Safelite representative before he was cleared to get the job done at a shop owned by one of his constituents.
Burgess neither confirmed nor denied the story.
Bill Camp, who owns At Home Auto Glass, said the bill’s existence proves insurance companies and Safelite — not small auto shop businesses — are the ones behaving improperly.
“If the insurance companies and Safelite were winning in court, we wouldn’t be here,” he said. “But every time we go to court, every time we go to appraisal, we’re awarded more money because we’re entitled to more money. Because that’s what the cost is for the job.”
Lobbyist Ashely Kalifeh, who represents Safelite, said the company does not engage in steering, supports anti-steering regulations and offered to provide audio recordings of claim calls at any of the committee members’ request.
While Safelite operates as both a glass repair business and a claims handler through its subsidiary, Safelite Solutions, she said, it’s not the only such business in Florida.
“There’s a couple other competitors in that space,” she said.
Despite the scrutiny and opposition from stakeholders the bill met at every committee stop this year, SB 1002 received nothing but “yes” votes on its way to the Senate floor.
The House version (HB 541), which now awaits consideration by the full chamber, did not fare as well, earning “no” votes from Democratic Reps. Kristen Arrington, Darryl Campbell, Ashley Gantt, Johanna López and Rita Harris.