I’ve been consulting with the pro-bono legal relief effort for hurricane Michael. The very first and most obvious question was from legal aid lawyers who have been asked how best to present insurance claims for losses to houses and mobile homes. Specifically, owners are afraid to call a lawyer to help with claims because they know lawyers will cost too much.

Many of these owners don’t have the money to pay a lawyer, or they wouldn’t have been visiting legal aid. The legal aid lawyers don’t particularly trust whoever “public adjusters” are, and consequently don’t know what advice to give. This article addresses the availability of legal help for an owner to collect his insurance. This article is addressed only to owners, not to associations, where the considerations will be very different.

Let’s start with the assumption that an honest insurance company will pay an honest claim the same way, whether that claim is submitted by a lawyer, a public adjuster, or directly by the owner. That assumption is generally true because a company that denies a claim knows that in the insurance world, the winner of a lawsuit can also collect his legal fees. Dishonest or greedy insurance companies find themselves quickly wrapped in lawsuits that will be expensive for the Company, and a waste of its resources.

In the same way, if as a lawyer I had lots of hurricane clients submit dishonest claims, settlements will stall, lawsuits aren’t nearly as likely to be successful, and my clients will mostly be dissatisfied with their insurance, and with me; I’ll be overworked and poorly paid, and I’ll deserve to be.

So let’s assume we all have a common objective – to present reasonable claims quickly, get them paid efficiently, and get back in houses as soon as possible.

There are 4 ways you could submit a claim:

  1. Do it yourself. Get a Proof of Claim form from your insurance company, or from the Department of Financial Services. Attach a good faith estimate of damages, a bid or estimate from a contractor, pictures of the damages, and send it to your insurer. They will assign their own adjuster, and you and that adjuster can agree on an amount and you can get a quick settlement.
  2. Use a Public Adjuster. Public adjusters are a profession regulated by the Florida Department of Financial Services. By law for residential property and condo units they can legally charge no more than 10%. Florida law (Chapter 626 of the Florida Statutes) and Florida Administrative Code (Chapter 69B) provides for licensing and fairly strict ethics codes for Public Adjusters, including prohibition of conflicts of interest. An experienced public adjuster will know more than anyone else about what you should recover, and can prepare a credible estimate of damages. There’s a very good chance that the 10% of your recovery you agree to pay will be money well spent. But, be sure the adjuster you deal with is a licensed public adjuster, under contract with you, and not an adjuster under contract with your insurance company.
  3. Use a lawyer. The best lawyers I’ve ever met are also the most genuinely courteous people I’ve ever met. Their office staff will reflect that lawyer. (The same, incidentally, can be said of judges and their staffs). Call a lawyer and talk to his office about fling a Proof of Claim for you. If that office is struck on a 33% contingency fee, he’ll tell you. Tell them you are looking for a relationship in which a lawyer or his paralegal will assist in filing your claim with the understanding that if you can’t get a fair settlement, he or she will represent you for a standard contingency fee in filing a lawsuit. But your attorney will tell you quickly that lawsuits take months (sometimes years), and you will likely pay the costs of the suit, (normally limited to filing fees and court reporter costs). Neither you nor the lawyer will benefit from a bad lawsuit.
  4. The legal aid office. These offices have good lawyers and staffs. But during a public crisis they are over-worked. They will appreciate it if you go first to one of the above alternatives and use legal aid as a last resort.

Writer’s note: I often use the convention of using the sex of the writer, not the more cumbersome he/she (or his/hers) because he/she seems to interrupt the flow of most sentences. Your choice for a lawyer should have everything to do with the job you need done and the person who does it, and nothing to do with the sex of the lawyer. The person who hires a lawyer based on whether the lawyer is male or female will have said “no” to some extraordinary lawyers.

Conclusion: Don’t be afraid to file your own claim, or talk to a public adjuster, or to a lawyer, if you first discuss his fee. 10% is a reasonable fee to help you submit a claim if your adjuster or lawyer works timely and efficiently to present your claim. Lastly, the insurance system will only work if both sides work to settle claims fairly and quickly, and only if neither gets greedy.

This article was published in the Coastal Homes publication of the Northwest Florida Daily News on December 1, 2018: