Miami Homeowner Rejects Settlement, Must Now Pay Insurer’s Attorney Fees
Florida insurance carriers and agents have complained for years about what they say are exorbitant plaintiffs’ attorney fees in claims dispute litigation, fees that can be four or five times the settlement or judgment amount.
An appeals court decision flips the math on that and could potentially end up costing the policyholder more in lawyer fees than the jury awarded for the water damage. The case also involves the Strems Law Firm, whose former principal, Scot Strems, has been accused of filing thousands of unnecessary lawsuits against insurers and has been suspended from law practice due to Florida Bar rules violations.
In Safepoint Insurance Co. vs. Jannie Williams, Florida’s 3rd District Court of Appeals last week reversed a trial court and found that Williams must pay Safepoint’s legal fees after six years of litigation. The case began in 2015, when Williams filed a claim on her homeowner’s policy, asserting that a leaking air conditioner unit had caused extensive damage to her Miami home.
Safepoint denied the claim, citing an exclusion provision in the policy. Williams, represented by the Strems Law Firm, of Coral Gables, filed suit for breach of contract. Three years later, Safepoint offered a settlement of $25,000.
The settlement offer noted that the $25,000 would cover Williams’ “litigation costs,” but not her attorney fees. Safepoint agreed to pay Williams’ lawyer’s fees later, once they were determined by the court, the appeals court explained in its Nov. 10 opinion. Williams rejected the offer by failing to respond within 30 days, and the case proceeded to trial.
A Miami-Dade County jury in 2019 returned a verdict in Williams’ favor, but for only $3,566 in damages.
After the judgment, Safepoint filed a motion to recover its own legal fees. Florida law allows the prevailing defendant to petition for attorney fees to be paid by the plaintiff if the final judgment is at least 25% less than the settlement offer. Williams’ attorneys argued that the motion was invalid because it did not include the exact amount of plaintiff’s “reasonable attorney’s fees.”
The trial court agreed and declined to award Safepoint any fee recovery. Safepoint appealed.
Appeals Court Judge Monica Gordo wrote the 3rd DCA opinion. She said that Safepoint had, in fact, made a valid settlement offer and that neither state law nor previous court decisions require the settlement offer to include the exact amount of attorneys’ fees.
“No Florida court has held that the plaintiff’s reasonable pre-offer attorneys’ fees must be quantified and included in the total amount of the proposal in order to create a valid offer of judgment,” the court wrote.
The appeals court remanded the case to the Miami trial court, so that the judge can determine a reasonable legal fee for the plaintiffs, so that can be figured into the comparison between Safepoint’s offer and the jury’s judgment amount. The court did not say what practical difference that would make, since the jury verdict, $3,566, will still be at least 25% less than a settlement offer that includes attorney’s fees.
Safepoint also did not indicate how much it would ask for its own attorneys’ fees. Attorneys in the case could not be reached for comment.
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