Supreme Court Strikes Another Blow to Florida's No-Fault Personal Injury Protection
By Gerri Elder
A few weeks ago, Florida Governor Jeb Bush vetoed a provision that would have extended Florida's no-fault personal injury protection requirements. Without that extension, the statute is scheduled to "sunset" on October 1, 2007.
No-fault personal injury protection is designed to minimize the need for litigation and expedite payment of medical expenses for personal injury victims. However, insurance companies claim that the process is rife with fraud, and even advocates of personal injury protection insurance admit there are problems in the execution. Some personal injury victims have been double-billed, some have received inadequate compensation, and some at the other end of the spectrum have inflated claims.
Lawmakers are working to provide safeguards against those practices-safeguards the governor has indicated may change his position on extending the law.
However, a recent decision by the Florida Supreme Court may render the point moot, or very nearly so. The ruling allows courts to order personal injury plaintiffs to pay the insurance companies' attorney fees if the plaintiff has rejected a settlement offer and then loses the case-or if the plaintiff wins the case, but had rejected an offer at least 1/3 greater than the award.
In short, many personal injury victims, already facing financial crises caused by lost work and medical bills, will be unable to risk litigating their claims. Insurance companies can make low offers knowing that many plaintiffs will be afraid to challenge them, since a judgment for attorney fees would be catastrophic to most injury victims. Ethical personal injury lawyers may often find themselves advising clients that legitimate claims are simply too risky to litigate.
Legal fees racked up by insurance companies in defending personal injury claims are often many times larger than the claims themselves, so that a plaintiff unsuccessfully seeking compensation for $5,000 in medical bills could easily find herself on the hook for $25,000 or more in legal fees.
With the risks introduced by the possible liability for attorney fees, it is all the more critical that personal injury victims have the advice of a reputable personal injury attorney before making decisions about their claims. While the insurance companies may use the threat of attorney fees as a pressure point in negotiating with claimants, a personal injury attorney will be able to make an educated assessment of the likelihood of success and the actual risks associated with the claim.