Assignment of Benefits—For what it’s worth!

Just FYI: while well worth reading, this blog is more of a lamentation than my usual analysis and opinion.  Take it for what it’s worth.

Recall that in my immediate preceding blog I wrote of a threat I received during the Insurance Consumer Advocates (ICA) water loss forum in Boca Raton.  It happened prior to my presentation, and was an obvious attempt by a trial lawyer at intimidation–specifically, “play nice” or get a “desist letter”.

In that blog I concluded we may all be playing a little too nice.

But, here’s the shameful truth.  No threat was necessary. I was already gonna play nice.  Regretfully my notes were scrubbed to avoid any chance of generating even the most frivolous “desist letter”.

Even the bravest of hearts (which I am not) can be intimidated by the aggressive players in Florida’s litigious environment—among the nation’s worst.

There are about 6,000 trial lawyers in our sunshine state and any number of so called consumer groups fronting for them.  But, the few dozen or so firms that Governor Scott warned us about in his inaugural speech, collectively, are the beast within our city gates.   A fire breather of thousands and thousands of annual lawsuits.

Often just to intimidate others into silence. Holding press conferences to force non-culpable defendants to succumb.  Seemingly without conscience they disparage, mischaracterize, literally trash others, sometimes even knowing it’s a distortion or worse, an outright lie.

And so we keep our heads down.  We submit, leaving by the wayside our constitutionally endowed freedom of expression.  It’s a hard pill to swallow.

Any number of times I’ve received a “desist” letter (or a threatening variation thereof) for merely expressing fact based opinions in these blogs.  They’ve come from attorneys for public adjusters, water extractors, and roofers. All frivolous.

A blog I wrote some time back in which I did not name the roofer is a case on point.  Months later, I received a threatening letter from his attorney alleging that, even though I didn’t give the roofers name, his client was “defamed” because everybody knew who I was talking about.  And, he warned I had no first amendment protections, even as a citizen journalist (blogger), because, uh… I’m a lobbyist, which I am not.

Since it wasn’t material to my point, I withdrew the language to avoid the hassle (and expense) of proving my case.

Months later I attended a claims conference where attendees were shown a video by ABC Action News about a roofer that was using AOB to abuse consumers.

Would you believe it? ABC Action News exposed the same roofer for doing the same things I was going to be sued for writing about.  They interviewed the roofers victims.  They showed footage of the roofing company headquarters, including a phone number, and a picture of the owner who would not return their telephone calls.  I, on the other hand, didn’t even mention his name.

“Fifteen homeowners filed complaints with the state” according to the I-Team investigators and of the three interviewed, none could get the roofer to even start the repairs.  One even had her policy cancelled.

Unfortunately for these consumers, I had “played nice”, succumbing to a threat by pulling language from a blog that might have warned them about the shady activity. (See Note #1 below).

In another totally unrelated blog I wrote that “property” insurer’s routinely pay attorney fees to settle AOB suits for somewhere between $3500 to $7500. I’m now told that figure is closer to $10,000.  Don’t know if that’s “on average” or even if it’s true, but…it sounds reasonable, especially for water damage claims.

Now…to see why I refer to some attorneys collectively as “the beast within the city gates”, do the math on 92,521 AOB lawsuits at $10,000 a pop! (See Note #2 below)

In yet another blog on the beast I pointed to a passel of fire-breathers filing frivolous public records requests for thousands and thousands of documents.  All to create a pretext to sue and collect fees.   Imagine causing dedicated local officials to work overtime, increasing government expenses and local taxes, just to make a greedy buck, and doing it all while pretending to be on high moral ground.   Despicable!

As always, don’t trust me on this. Listen to the testimony by Rep. Greg Steube (R-Sarasota) regarding his bill HB-1021 designed to stop the abuse by not forcing (Judge’s Choice) the award of attorney’s fees in frivolous public records cases. Fast forward to 30:29 and listen to the current abuses created by just “one law firm”.  (See Note #3 below).  And believe me when I say it’s much worse with AOB property claims and auto windshield losses.

For more disturbing math, read the editorial I wrote for news outlets statewide.  It’s titled “The worst consumer rip off”.  If it doesn’t appear in your hometown paper, email or call the editorial board and ask them to help shut the gates on AOB by publishing my editorial.

Thanks for reading this far.


Note #1:  Here’s a question that goes right to the heart of AOB: what about the roof leaks?  Why hadn’t these homeowners sued or taken separate action to get their contracted repairs underway?   Why did they wait to be contacted by a news team that took close to an entire year to investigate and put a story together?  Is it possible there were no leaks or any real damage but, they just wanted a new roof? Just saying.

Note #2:  In 2005 and 2006 there were only 9,424 AOB lawsuits. In 2007 and 2008 AOB lawsuits jumped to 19,154. In 09/10 25,155 were filed. And, in 11/12 lawyers filed 85,137 suits. And in 2013 and 2014 attorneys filed 92,521 suits where the client, usually a water extractor, roofer or auto glass repair facility, was the “assignee of” proceeds from someone else’s insurance policy.

Note #3: This “judges’ choice” approach to attorney fees is currently found at least 100 times in chapter 119 FS. Why not apply the same principle to FS 627.428 for AOB abuse? Cities and counties were not refusing to comply with any legal records request. The requests, often lacking in merit, are designed through sheer volume to make compliance difficult or impossible. Currently when a court rules against the defendant municipality the law states it “shall” award attorney fees to the plaintiff. HB-1021, and its senate companion SB-1220, may show the way to reform AOB by also changing the word “shall” to “may” in Fs 627.428. Similar language regarding attorney fees exists at least 100 times outside the public records statute, which currently reads as follows:

119.12 Attorney’s fees.—If a civil action is filed against an agency to enforce the provisions of this chapter and if the court determines that such agency unlawfully refused to permit a public record to be inspected or copied, the court shall assess and award, against the agency responsible, the reasonable costs of enforcement including reasonable attorneys’ fees.

History.—s. 5, ch. 75-225; s. 7, ch. 84-298; s. 13, ch. 2004-335.

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