Understanding the Broad Scope of a Florida Insurance Carrier’s Duty to Defend

Our legal blog frequently covers homeowner insurance claims issues, but the focus of the discussion usually is on property damage claims rather than liability claims arising out of personal injuries on or off the insured’s premises.  Although we have occasionally addressed coverage for liability claims, the focus usually is on the insurer’s duty to pay judgments or settlements.  By contrast, this blog post will focus on the related duty to defend an insured under a liability policy whether under a homeowner's insurance policy or other form of coverage in Florida.  The duty to defend is much broader under Florida law than the duty to indemnify an insured by paying a verdict or negotiated settlement.

When a policyholder submits a liability claim to an insurance company, the carrier will often elect to tender a defense of the claim under a reservation of rights.  The motivation for this approach is in no small part linked to the difference in the scope of the duty to indemnify and the duty to defend.  The Florida appellate court case of Carithers v. Mid-Continent Case provides a concise articulation of the distinction between these duties.

Under Florida law, an insurance carrier only has a duty to indemnify if the facts of the underlying lawsuit against the policyholder establish the existence of coverage under the terms of the policy.  However, the Carithers court reaffirms the principle that the duty of an insurer to defend an insured is far broader than the scope of the duty to indemnify.  The duty to defend is triggered if there is ANY possibility that the facts and claims in the underlying tort lawsuit against an insured will be covered under the policy.

This broader rule means that an insured can simply highlight allegations in the complaint in the underlying lawsuit against the policyholder that might raise the potential for coverage to secure a defense.  Once this relatively lenient standard is met, the insurance carrier has a duty to defend even if the allegations in the complaint also seek damages that clearly fall outside the scope of indemnified losses under the policy.

In other words, the insurance company must defend against all of the causes of action and types of damages sought if ANY of the allegations within the four corners of the complaint state claims and related damages that might be covered.  The Carithers decision also extends the broad scope of the duty to defend by indicating that an insured can look beyond the facts in the underlying liability lawsuit to obtain a defense.  The appellate court specified that uncertainties and ambiguities in the law also create a duty to defend.

Our Miami insurance claims law firm invites you to contact us if your insurance company refuses to fulfill its duty to indemnify or defend you against a liability claim that could be financially ruinous.  Florida insurance claims lawyer J.P. Gonzalez-Sirgo handles claims against insurance companies in Miami and throughout Florida. The Law Firm of J.P. Gonzalez-Sirgo, P.A. offers free consultations and case evaluations.  No Recovery, No Lawyer Fees.  Call 305-461-1095 or Toll Free 1-866-71-CLAIM.

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