Nearly every homeowner’s insurance policy issued in Florida provides a mechanism for resolving disputes between the insured and their carrier as to the amount of a loss: Appraisal.
The language of the appraisal clause can vary from carrier to carrier – some policies, for example, can require appraisal to be invoked within a certain period of time – so it is important to carefully review the specific policy provision any time a party demands a loss be submitted to appraisal. The process is commonly described as follows:
Appraisal. If you and we fail to agree on the amount of loss, either one can demand that the amount of the loss be set by appraisal. If either makes a written demand for appraisal, each shall select a competent, disinterested appraiser. Each shall notify the other of the appraiser’s identity within 20 days of receipt of the written demand. The two appraisers shall then select a competent, impartial umpire. If the two appraisers are unable to agree upon an umpire within 15 days, you or we can ask a judge of a court of record in the state where the residence premises is located to select an umpire. The appraisers shall then set the amount of the loss. If the appraisers submit a written report of an agreement to us, the amount agreed upon shall be the amount of the loss. If the appraisers fail to agree within a reasonable time, they shall submit their differences to the umpire. Written agreement signed by any two of these three shall set the amount of the loss. Each appraiser shall be paid by the party selecting that appraiser. Other expenses of the appraisal and the compensation of the umpire shall be paid equally by you and us.
When properly invoked, participation in the appraisal process is mandatory and the amount of loss determined by the panel is binding.
Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeals recently addressed whether appraisal can be compelled by a carrier after partially denying coverage for the loss. The case, People’s Trust Insurance Company v. Tracey,1 involved a claim for damage to an insureds’ roof and their home’s interior. The homeowners reported that the loss had been caused by wind from a tornado. Although the carrier generally acknowledged coverage for the loss, it limited its payment to only the interior damages and denied coverage for roofing system portion of the claim. Specifically, People’s Trust sent the insured a letter stating:
THERE IS COVERAGE UNDER THE POLICY FOR THIS LOSS AS A WHOLE; HOWEVER, THE SCOPE OF DAMAGES COVERED BY YOUR POLICY INCLUDES ONLY THE INTERIOR DAMAGES BUT DOES NOT INCLUDE YOUR ROOF.
We have completed our investigation of your claim, and based upon what we were provided and what you reported, and additionally, based upon our claim investigation, there is generally coverage for your loss as a whole. However, and more specifically, our investigation revealed that the roof leak you reported stemmed from age-related wear and tear and deterioration; general mechanical breakdown or latent defect; and/or faulty, inadequate or defective maintenance of the roofing system – none of which are covered causes of loss. Therefore, in our opinion, the scope of covered damages would not include your roofing system because those damages were caused by uncovered or excluded causes, but would provide coverage for resulting ensuing damages to the interior of your home. Therefore, we believe our obligation is to repair only those damages to the interior of the home. If you are not in agreement with that assessment, the question of whether the scope of repairs should include the roof, can be resolved in appraisal.
In response to two proofs of loss submitted by the insureds, both of which exceeded the insurer’s payment and included repairs to the roof, People’s Trust demanded. The homeowners then filed suit against their insurance carrier for breach of contract and the insurer responded by moving to compel appraisal. People’s Trust maintained that the cause of the roof damage could be resolved in appraisal because it went to the amount of the loss. The insured successfully argued that the cause of the damage to the roof was a question of coverage and, therefore, solely within the purview of the court.
The trial court agreed with the insureds and denied People’s Trust motion to compel appraisal, without prejudice. The appellate court, however, reversed and remanded the case back to the trial court to compel the appraisal. In its reasoning, the appellate court explained that “when an insurer admits coverage and disputes the amount of loss, causation is to be determined by an appraisal panel.” Regarding the insured’s argument, the court emphasized that “[c]ausation is a coverage question for the court when an insurer wholly denies that there is a covered loss and an amount-of-loss question for the appraisal panel when an insurer admits there is a covered loss, the amount of which is disputed.”
This case further demonstrates the nuances of first-party property actions and how particular facts surrounding a claim can change the outcome of litigation. Based on Tracey, if an insurer denies coverage for a loss in its entirety it may not be able to avoid litigation by invoking appraisal – but if it only denies coverage for a portion of the claim, then you may have no other option than to participate in the appraisal process. If you believe that an appraisal provision has been improperly demanded or have questions about whether an insurance carrier may invoke appraisal under a policy, contact an experienced insurance professional for help.
1 People’s Trust Ins. Co. v. Tracey, No. 4D17-3945, 2018 WL 3559914 (Fla. 4th DCA July 25, 2018).