(Note: This Guest Blog is by Corey Harris, an attorney with Merlin Law Group in the Tampa, Florida, office. This is part of a series he is writing on post-loss duties).
I recently took the deposition of an independent adjuster who worked on behalf of one of the larger insurers in the state. While most of the deposition was pretty standard, I was shocked when the adjuster said that he had advised the homeowners to stop making temporary repairs to their home. When I asked him to explain why he did not think it was a good idea for temporary repairs to the roof and exterior of the building to be completed, he answered that coverage had not been established yet and he did not think the repairs should be made until it was.
This exchange surprised me for a number of reasons. First, it is a fundamental part of insurance that a policyholder has a duty to take reasonable steps to mitigate damages. Making temporary repairs to a leaking roof would seem like a logical place to start, especially in Florida during the middle of the rainy season. Second, I was surprised that this individual did not seem to understand the potential problems that his advice could have caused.
In my last post, I detailed some of the potentially harsh consequences of a policyholder’s failure to properly mitigate damages, however, an insurer may be estopped from arguing as much if its actions encouraged or led to the insured’s failure to mitigate. See for example Kubista v. Romaine, 549 P.2d 491 (Wash 1976).
An insurer’s agents and representatives can bind the insurer through their actions and statements. See Old Republic Ins. Co. v. Von Onweller Const. Co., 239 So.2d 503, 504 (2d DCA 1970); Hughes v. Pierce, 141 So.2d 280, 284 (Fla. 1st 1961). Thus, if an adjuster tells a policyholder to stop making temporary repairs, it is only logical that the insurer should not be able to later deny coverage based on a failure to mitigate. Furthermore, the insurer may be liable for any further damages that the insured property sustained as a result of the adjuster’s instruction to stop making repairs, even if these damages are not covered under the policy.
The homeowners in my case were lucky that no additional damages occurred as a result of their stopping repairs at the insistence of the adjuster. However, the insurer and adjuster are lucky as well, because they could have been held liable for any resulting damages. This is why educating both adjusters and policyholders about the proper steps to take after a loss is very important to both sides, and failing to do so can cause more coverage disputes than necessary.