Lawmakers Could Target Attorney Fees

TALLAHASSEE — Expect changes to attorney fees as one step in next week’s special legislative session to address Florida’s troubled property-insurance system, House Commerce Committee Chairman Bob Rommel said Wednesday.

House and Senate leaders on Tuesday released an outline of topics for the session, but Rommel,. R-Naples, said talks are still underway on the details of bills that will go before lawmakers. The session will begin Monday.

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Rommel, appearing at an annual Florida Chamber of Commerce’s insurance summit in Orlando, said one issue that will be addressed is the impact of what are known as “one-way attorney fees.” Insurers have long sought changes because they can be forced to pay the fees of plaintiffs in lawsuits over insurance claims.

“When you’re watching TV, or you try to watch TV, there’s more commercials about an attorney talking about not making you whole when you’re damaged, but putting money in your pocket,” Rommel said. “And somehow in Florida we’ve gotten to this area where it’s not about making people whole and their harm. It’s about making you rich or making an attorney rich.”

Rommel said changes during the session will be aimed at helping consumers, protecting an industry on “life support” and attracting investment capital into the Florida insurance market.

“We know we have to do some aggressive things that some people in the insurance industry aren’t going to like, some consumers aren’t going to like, some legislators aren’t going to like. But you still have to do it,” Rommel said.

But Amy Boggs, chairwoman of the Florida Justice Association’s Property Insurance Section, criticized the focus on restricting lawsuits, saying such moves would hurt consumers.

“Litigation isn’t the problem — it’s the scapegoat,” Boggs said in a statement Tuesday. “Behind every lawsuit is a homeowner or business owner who has been underpaid or wrongfully denied coverage.”

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, and House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, released a formal session proclamation Tuesday that listed a series of hot-button insurance issues that could be considered.

Those issues include trying to curb lawsuit costs; boost the availability of critical reinsurance; limit a long-controversial practice known as assignment of benefits; and bolster the financial stability of the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

Citizens was created as an insurer of last resort. With companies dumping hundreds of thousands of policies to reduce financial risks — and six insurers going insolvent since February — Citizens has seen its policy count grow from 542,739 in December 2020 to 1.13 million as of Friday.

“I know that if I were looking to put my capital to work, I probably wouldn’t want to come to Florida under the current situation,” Rommel said. “That’s why we’ve seen the growth of Citizens. You know, Citizens, we basically subsidized the rates. They’re not actuarially sound.”

During a separate Citizens Board of Governors meeting Wednesday, Citizens President and CEO Barry Gilway also said a major challenge is drawing investment capital into the market. At the same time, insurers are seeing large increases in the costs of reinsurance, backup coverage that plays a critical role in Florida.

While Gilway supports legislation to curb litigation, he said such changes would not immediately solve the industry’s problems. As a result, he said short-term state support could be needed to help with issues such as reinsurance. During a May special session, lawmakers approved spending $2 billion on reinsurance.

During a call with reporters Tuesday, House Democrats argued lawmakers need to address rate increases, push for a national catastrophic risk pool, ensure homeowners are better educated on their policies and reduce the dependence on Citizens.

Rep. Hillary Cassel, an attorney from Dania Beach who specializes in property insurance law, said the government and insurance companies need to be more accountable for their actions. She pointed to the state Office of Insurance Regulation.

“We need to review the data that OIR (Office of Insurance Regulation) receives in a commission-type basis, where stakeholders have an opportunity to review the extensive amount of data and report back to the Legislature, rather than just receiving OIR presentations of the facts,” Cassel said.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis wants lawmakers to consider a statewide prosecutor who would focus on insurance fraud.

“It’s just time we do a little more focusing and get some deterrent,” Patronis said Tuesday at the Florida Chamber event.

Patronis also called for lawmakers to ban the longstanding practice known as assignment of benefits.

Assignments of benefits, which involves policyholders signing over insurance claims to contractors, has been highly controversial in recent years, particularly involving such things as water-damage claims.

Lawmakers have taken some steps to try to restrict assignment of benefits, arguing, in part, that the practice has led to costly litigation.

— News Service Executive Editor Jim Saunders contributed to this report.

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