Lawmakers are considering several pieces of legislation that would change state laws governing homeowners’ insurance policies, including a bill that would award reasonable attorney fees and lawsuit costs to plaintiffs who win their cases against insurers.
The legislation is supported by trial attorneys, but opposed by the insurance industry.
State Rep. Robert W. Megna, D-New Haven, and co-chair of the Insurance and Real Estate Committee, said there’s merit in authorizing plaintiffs who win their cases to be able to obtain attorney fees and lawsuits costs.
When policyholders report damage claims to their insurers and when those claims have been denied to some extent, the policyholders have the burden of hiring an attorney and paying for that attorney out of any recovery they obtain, Megna said. The proposed legislation would remove that burden.
As it stands, attorney fees are “going to come off the property damage settlement,” Megna said. “Even if the homeowner prevails, they’re at a disadvantage when it comes to fixing their home.”
The committee will decide this week whether the bills, including the attorney fees measure, will be voted out of committee, Megna said.
Ryan Suerth, a Hartford-based solo practitioner who represents policyholders in insurance disputes, testified in support of the legislation. “The intent of it is to ensure that the policyholder gets the benefit of the policy they purchased… You get taken care of 100 percent,” Suerth said in an interview.
If the legislation is passed, there may be a decrease in litigation alleging bad faith by insurers or alleging that insurers violated the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act and the Connecticut Unfair Insurance Practices Act, Suerth said. Attorney fees can be obtained in those types of lawsuits but not in breach of contract actions prosecuted against insurers.
The Insurance Association of Connecticut said in submitted testimony that, at times, it can be unclear when policyholders “prevail” in legal action against an insurer, and thus it would be confusing just who is entitled to attorney fees and costs.
“The proposal is contrary to the traditions of the American judicial system,” the association said in its prepared testimony. “Insurers should be able to challenge questionable claims when there is a good-faith basis for such a challenge … Examining the validity of claims helps insurers maintain rates for all policyholders by weeding out the frivolous or meritless claims.”
If the policy behind the legislation is to deter insurers from unnecessarily denying or delaying claims, the threat of bad-faith claims or penalties from the Insurance Department already does that, the association said.
The Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, a trade association group, suggested that the bill could make the Connecticut insurance market tighter and more expensive. In prepared testimony, the association said because the law does not define what it means for plaintiffs to prevail, insurers won’t want to risk Connecticut court declaring victories for plaintiffs and costing the industry “tens of thousands of dollars” in attorney fees.
“While this bill would be positive for attorneys who would benefit from increased litigation and fees, it is important to remember that attorney’s fees would become part of claim costs and Connecticut homeowners may ultimately be the losers in this scenario due to potentially rising insurance costs,” the association said.
The association claims its members write 49 percent of all personal insurance policies sold in Connecticut.
Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, and Theresa Guertin, a policyholder attorney with Saxe Doernberger & Vita, also testified in support of the bill. Guertin raised the concern in her testimony that the legislation could be interpreted to allow insurance companies to recoup attorney fees from policyholders.
Guertin also noted that about half of the states award attorney fees to policyholders who prevail in insurance-coverage litigation. She also said that in most cases she has handled $50,000 to $100,000 in attorney fees are incurred before cases resolve.
A second bill under consideration would extend from 18 months to two years the time period when lawsuits may be brought against insurers after homeowners have suffered a loss. Currently, insurers can include limitation-of-suit provisions in insurance policies of 18 months or more.
In 2009, Connecticut changed the period of time that insurers could limit lawsuits by policyholders from a year to 18 months.
Megna said he supported a two-year time period back then, but it was amended down to 18 months.
A third bill under consideration would bar insurers from canceling, refusing to renew or increasing the cost of policies based solely on losses incurred as a result of adverse weather when the insured patry’s negligence did not contribute to the loss.