Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition
Repealing attorneys’ fee law harms working-class Floridians
I’ve practiced law here in Florida for more than 40 years. From the very beginning, I’ve represented individuals, families and local small businesses in disputes caused by insurance misconduct.
I’ve lost my share of those disputes, and I’ve won a few.
There are two very important things I’d like to highlight, common to each one of these disputes.
First, each of the folks I’ve represented had insurance and were in dire straits because of disputes with their insurance companies.
Here are a few examples:
A young woman in Miami, who needed supplemental oxygen to survive, whose health insurer decided that the supplemental oxygen was too expensive, and it was cheaper for her to suffocate.
A doctor and his wife in Lake County, whose young son was afflicted with adrenoleukodystrophy, a disease that required thousands and thousands of dollars a year to manage, whose health insurer decided to lower their $1 million annual limit to a $1 million lifetime limit.
A young Broward County man, in risk of a stroke. His doctor recommended a watchman device, the health insurer did not approve, and he then suffered a debilitating avoidable stroke.
A Suwanee County school teacher whose health insurer refused to pay for a desperately needed surgery that cost over $70,000, based on an incorrect interpretation of its own policy.
A Duval County beachfront homeowner whose home was destroyed by a hurricane, but whose homeowners’ insurer claimed the loss was due to flooding but not windstorm and refused to honor his claim.
A family in Marion County who, after they lost their teenaged son in an accident, were cheated out of their automobile insurance policy benefits by the insurer and its claims personnel.
A young wife and mother in Indian River County fighting a debilitating and progressive demyelinating disease, whose health insurer decided to stop paying for desperately needed drug therapy.
I have many, many more examples, and I’m not one of these lawyers that takes out billboard or TV ads. I’ve always practiced law in my own small firm, and each of these folks entrusted their insurance dispute to me.
The second important thing, common to these disputes, is that not a single one of these folks were in any position to afford to hire a competent attorney on an hourly fee basis.
Further, even a contingency fee is unworkable. If my clients had been forced to pay the costs of the litigation and then pay a percentage of money they recovered, they would not be made whole, and would, instead, still face the problems caused by the misconduct of their insurer.
Thank goodness for them, and our present and future clients, Florida has a strong statute that says, with very few limitations, that if they prevail in court, the insurer will have to pay their attorney’s fees.
Because of that law, the clients whose situations I described were able to have my law firm represent them, in some cases for several years, in some very contentious and expensive litigation, and we did not charge them a penny for attorney’s fees.
That attorneys’ fees statute was enacted by the Florida Legislature in 1959, long before I began to practice law. Now, the Legislature is considering a bill that would repeal that law.
If that law is repealed, how many folks in dire, catastrophic situations due to insurer misconduct could afford to hire a lawyer and could anticipate being made whole?
Gov. Ron DeSantis and the bill’s proponents say that lawsuits over small change can lead to thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees. But those lawsuits are not being brought by Floridians like my clients.
Instead, small-claim lawsuits that come with high attorney fees are being brought by commercial entities, primarily in the medical bill collection area.
I urge the Legislature to research the frequency of these cases. There are hundreds of appellate decisions in Florida in which the lawsuit against the insurer was brought by a commercial entity seeking to collect a medical bill from an insurer, as an assignee of the insured person.
If the Legislature wants to curb those types of insignificant lawsuits by medical bill collection entities that lead to outsized attorney’s fee awards, there are more limited and focused ways to do so without taking away the benefits provided to Florida citizens, families and small businesses since 1959.
Regular folks, like my clients, need to retain the ability to bring their insurers to account when they violate the law and their own policies.