THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, FL - (July 5, 2012) - A provision in a 2008 law restricting the ability of public insurance adjusters to contact homeowners immediately after a storm was struck down Thursday by a unanimous Florida Supreme Court.
Prompted by claims that public adjusters were taking advantage of distraught homeowners following the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, the Florida Legislature passed an insurance industry backed effort to limit adjusters' activities, including contact between public adjusters and customers within the first 48-hours following a hurricane, tornado or other major storm.
Backers said the adjusters were increasing insurance costs by pressuring homeowners into signing contracts. Public adjusters and their supporters say they were just allowing customers to receive the full benefits to which they were entitled.
Upholding a 1st District Court of Appeal ruling, the state's high court said the law as written barred commercial speech in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The court rejected arguments put forth by the Department of Financial Services, which contended that adjusters' activities were outside the scope of freedom of speech protections.
"The Department's claim that the public adjuster initiated contact and solicitation... are conduct - not protected free speech-is unpersuasive," Chief Justice Charles Canady wrote for the court. "This argument is predicated on the strained reading of the statute advanced by the Department. With the rejection of that strained statutory reading, the argument collapses."
DFS spokeswoman Alexis Lambert said Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater's office would have no statement on the ruling other than that Atwater respects the court and accepts the decision.
Following the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons lawmakers looked at ways to reduce the cost drivers that insurance companies said were leading to skyrocketing premiums. Insurers have cited cases where they've had to pay out on some dubious claims - and blamed public adjusters for persuading homeowners to pursue them.
So lawmakers decided to limit contact between customers and public adjusters, who critics argue have a financial incentive to raise claim amounts.
Lawmakers wrote a statute saying: "A public adjuster may not directly or indirectly through any other person or entity initiate contact or engage in face-to-face or telephonic solicitation or enter into a contract with any insured or claimant under an insurance policy until at least 48 hours after the occurrence of an event."
By Michael Peltier
The News Service of Florida