TALLAHASSEE — Legislation introduced in the Florida Legislature last month that would repeal nonjoinder of insurer provisions in state law is opposed by a legal advocacy group.
"Because this legislation would serve as an end run around the well-settled law that evidence of insurance coverage is inadmissible in liability trials, the Florida Justice Reform Institute opposes the bills," the group's President William Large said during Florida Record telephone and email interviews.
State Senate Bill 1452 and House Bill 6075, introduced by Sen. Greg Steube (R-Sarasota) and Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen (R-Fort Myers), respectively, would repeal provisions in existing law relating to the nonjoinder, or omission, of insurers from legal action.
Florida's nonjoinder statute governs how insurance carriers are treated during civil actions in the state. In part, the statute permits insurance providers to include clauses in customer contracts that preclude individuals other than the insured from "joining" the insurance provider as a defendant in an action against the insured person prior to a verdict.
Florida State House Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen (R-Fort Myers)
The statute also forbids mention of whether a defendant in a personal injury trial has insurance or very much information about what insurance the defendant may have. That provision under Florida law is crucial because a jury is more likely to side with a plaintiff in a personal injury action if jurors know that the defendant's loss in the case likely would be covered by an insurance provider with resources to cover the verdict, Large said.
"Given this fact, it has long been the law in Florida that 'evidence of insurance carried by a defendant is not properly to be considered by the jury because that body might be influenced thereby to fix liability where none exists, or to arrive at an excessive amount through sympathy for the injured party and the thought that the burden would not have to be met by the defendant,'" Large said, quoting existing case law that supports the statute.
SB 1452 and HB 6075 also would "circumvent" Florida's Insurance Exclusionary Rule, detailed by the state Supreme Court in John Joerg, Jr., etc., et al. v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. in 2015, Large said. That rule says that evidence that monetary verdicts for plaintiffs in civil cases will be covered by collateral or third sources, such as insurance coverage, is not admissible during trial.
"In short, the insurance exclusionary rule and nonjoinder statute serve an important purpose, to ensure that juries base their verdicts upon legitimate grounds and not upon the improper belief that a judgment adverse to the defendant will be passed along to the 'deep pocket' insurer," Large said. "A repeal of the nonjoinder statute would circumvent the insurance exclusionary rule by necessarily alerting the jury to the fact that the defendant is insured and any verdict may be borne by the defendant’s insurer."
SB 1452 was filed in the state Senate Jan. 3 and was referred Jan. 12 to the Banking and Insurance and Judiciary committees and few days later to Rules as SJ 169. Meanwhile, in the House, companion bill HB 6075 was filed Jan. 9 and within days was referred to the Judiciary Committee, Commerce Committee and Insurance and Banking Subcommittee, where it still is. No further action has been taken on either bill.