Recent AOB Issue Has Plagued Florida Homeowners

26 Dec

A recent study by the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.) confirms what many homeowners in the Sunshine State already know, that the assignment of benefits (AOB) issue that has plagued Florida the last few years has cost consumers billions of dollars in inflated claims cost and unnecessary litigation. 

“In Florida, abuse of AOBs has fueled an insurance crisis,” the report says. “The state’s legal environment has encouraged vendors and their attorneys to solicit unwarranted AOBs from tens of thousands of Floridians, conduct unnecessary or unnecessarily expensive work, then file tens of thousands of lawsuits against insurance companies that deny or dispute the claims,” the report continues.

In addition, the report found that the AOB crisis has cost consumers billions of dollars as they have paid higher premiums to cover excessive legal fees and needless repairs. 

What is an AOB?

An AOB is a legal document that is signed by a policyholder. This article explains the form in detail. This document allows a third party (such as a roofing company) to seek payment from the insurance company on the policyholders behalf. Florida law allows a homeowner to sign an AOB without the insurers consent, in fact, a homeowner doesn’t even have to notify their insurance company.

While AOBs can be handy in certain situations, there is always room for abuse and that is what has happened in Florida. Third parties with a signed AOB work with a less than honest attorney and they sue the insurance company when the insurer disputes an inflated repair bill from a roofing or other contractor. 

What the Report Found

The report discovered that in 2000 there were roughly 1,300 AOB lawsuits across the state. This number was 79,000 by 2013 and hit 135,000 through the first part of November 2018. This is a 70 percent increase over five years, which is a huge leap. 

“We estimate Florida’s auto and homeowners policyholders have paid about $2.5 billion in insurer legal costs over the past dozen years, a troubling trend driven by plaintiff’s attorneys who are abusing Florida’s current AOB system,” said .I.I.’s Chief Actuary, James Lynch in a recent Insurance Journal article . “That doesn’t count the billions more in excess claim settlements that are at the heart of the problem.”

One of the biggest issues is Florida’s  “one-way attorney fee” law. This allows the plaintiffs attorney to sue an insurer and if they lose they are under no obligation to pay the insurance companies legal fees. However, if the plaintiff wins, the insurer must cover their legal fees. All of this leaves insurers with little choice but to settle most lawsuit to help keep their legal costs under control. 

“As Florida’s insurers are hit with growing legal costs and paying inflated settlements, they are forced to pass these costs along to consumers, the people required to purchase auto and homeowners insurance,” the study said. “Floridians are paying more for insurance than they otherwise should be—often much more,” the study concluded. 

What Needs to Be Done

Most experts agree that if AOB abuse is to be stopped, the one-way attorney fee issues needs to change. This will make it more risky for lawyers to sue, making them think twice before bringing a less than rock solid lawsuit.

According to the report, these are the most common type of claim abuses with the AOB system:

Homeowners:In many cases, it is water damage not related to a storm. As an example, if a homeowner has a broken water pipe and signs an AOB form the contractor may then bill their insurer for work that was not done, needless repairs or inflated repair costs. If the insurer disputes the amount or denies the claim, the contractor and their shady lawyer sue. 

“The [Florida AOB] statute is meant to level the playing field between individual policyholders and economically powerful insurers. In practice it has incentivized plaintiff’s attorneys to file thousands of AOB lawsuits because there is no limit to legal fees that can be collected,” the study said.

AOB fraud leads to higher premiums, Citizens Property recently boosted rates an average of 8.2 percent across the state and blamed the majority of the increase on AOB fraud. 

Unfortunately, efforts to change the AOB laws have failed in the state legislature over the last few years but advocates for change hope this report will make lawmakers take reform seriously. 

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