Elbert P. Tuttle Courthouse, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, in Atlanta. (Photo: Rebecca Breyer)

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has revived a $2.7 million bad faith claim against Geico for failing to settle an insurance dispute after determining a lower court applied the wrong statute of limitations. 

Plaintiffs attorney Kerry McGuinn Jr. welcomed the ruling and said it should finally resolve an issue which has cropped up before, particularly in federal court: Whether Florida’s statute of limitations for bringing such claims is four years—as Geico had argued—or five years, which the appellate panel decreed.  

“It’s something that’s come up before, and we’ve gotten orders at the local level with judges saying it’s five years, but there was some dicta in the federal system saying it’s four years,” he said.

“To me, it’s a pretty straightforward opinion, and it’s pretty clear that the statute of limitations was five years,” said McGuinn of Tampa’s Rywant, Alvarez, Jones, Russo & Guyton, who represents the plaintiff with firm partner Michael Rywant.

Geico’s attorneys, B. Richard Young, Megan Alexander, Jordan Thompson and David Angley of Tampa’s Young, Bill, Boles, Palmer & Duke did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The underlying case involved a 2009 accident in which a car driven by Waldemar Baranowski lost control and wrecked. Passenger Jiri Renotier was thrown from the vehicle and seriously injured.

Renotier and his wife sued Baranowski in Florida’s Twentieth Judicial Circuit.

Baronowsky carried a Geico policy with $10,000 per person and $20,000 per occurrence in coverage.  

Geico was notified of the suit but refused to settle for its policy limits. Following a 2012 trial, the jury awarded more than than $2.6 million in damages. The final judgment entered in June 2012 added more than $88,000 in litigation costs.

In February 2017, Baranowski filed a bad-faith complaint against Geico in U.S. District Court for Florida’s Middle District, claiming the insurer “knew or should have known that the injuries sustained by Jiri Renotire were of such a serious nature that, if the case were not settled, it would result in a verdict and verdict … far in excess” of Geico’s policy limits.

Geico filed a motion to dismiss, arguing the complaint was filed seven months after the four-year statute of limitations for bad faith claims elapsed.

In April, Senior Judge James Whittemore sided with the insurer, ruling the bad-faith claim “arises from Geico’s alleged breach of its fiduciary duty,” which in Florida is considered an “intentional tort subject to a four-year statute of limitations.”

In an unpublished Jan. 9 per curiam order issued by Eleventh Circuit Judges Gerald Tjoflat, William Pryor Jr. and Kevin Newsom, the panel disagreed with Whittemore’s interpretation.

“Baranowski’s complaint of bad faith was an action arising out of a contract instead of an action in tort,” it said.

Although most states treat bad faith claims as a tort or a combination tort and contract claim, the opinion said Florida has a five-year statute of limitations for a legal or equitable action on a contract.

“The five-year limitation period applies to a complaint against an insurer for failing in bad faith to settle an insurance claim,” the judges ruled.

“Because Baranowski’s complaint was timely, the district court erred by dismissing his action as barred by the statute of limitation,” it said.