Florida Supreme Court hears Ocala woman’s case against insurance company
A Marion County woman’s case made it to the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday. The seven justices spent part of the morning listening to arguments in her case against an insurance company that had provided coverage against sinkholes. At issue specifically in front of the Supreme Court was whether the company, Omega Insurance Co., should pay the $100,000 in court fees that Kathy Johnson has racked up since filing her initial complaint in 2011. Omega agreed to cover Johnson’s claim for sinkhole-related damage — the issue that first put the case into the legal system — while her case was still in trial court. Sinkhole cases don’t often make it to the Supreme Court, said Morgan Barfield, an attorney for Johnson. Also unusual in this case is the reason the Supreme Court decided to hear it, Barfield said. The justices are considering whether the 5th District Court of Appeal misapplied a previous high court ruling it when it decided that Omega is not responsible for covering court fees. Johnson, of Ocala, began her path through the legal system in May 2011, according to court records, when she filed a lawsuit in Marion County Circuit Court against Omega.
Her complaint, filed by Barfield, suggested that Omega had wrongfully refused to cover damage to her southeast Ocala home. The sticking point in the case was whether the damage was caused by a sinkhole. The consulting group hired by Omega said it was not; the consulting group later hired by Johnson and her attorney said it was. Johnson and Omega agreed to go by a third opinion during discovery at the trial court level, according to brief later filed in the Florida Supreme Court. When that consulting group decided that a sinkhole was the source of the damage, Omega relented and paid Johnson’s claim in full. Barfield said the damage to Johnson’s home has since been repaired. But the case didn’t end there.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday heard attorneys for Johnson and for Omega argue two different interpretations of a Florida statute that lays out when an insurance company is responsible for paying attorney’s fees for the insured. When a judgment is rendered against a company, according to a general reading of the statute, the company should pay. A Marion County judge first ruled in favor of Johnson, interpreting the statute to pin Omega with the bill. The appellate court later ruled in favor of Omega, giving weight in its own interpretation to the view that Omega was reasonable to assume that its initial evaluation of the home damage had been accurate. The Supreme Court is not expected to make its own ruling for some time. But, on Wednesday, the justices seemed wary of Omega’s arguments that Johnson could have established grounds for the insurance company to pay her fees by simply disputing the initial evaluation with Omega. In other words, as Justice Charles Canady clarified, “the predicate for the fees is that there has to be this dispute.”
“It just seems incredible to me to think that anything would have changed,” said Justice Peggy Quince. “It just defies logic to me.” Timothy Weber, representing Johnson; Anthony Russo, representing Omega; and the justices also made several references to another case, Universal Insurance Co. of North America v. Warfel, from 2012. The Florida Supreme Court addressed a similar question in that case and took Johnson’s case on the grounds the appellate court may have misapplied it in their ruling.
By Nicki Gorny March 9, 2016 Star-Banner (Ocala, FL)