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Injured Florida Woman’s Breach of Contract Claim against Insurer Severed from Liability Claim against Ship and Captain – Starr Indemnity & Liability Co. v. Morris

boat2If you or a loved one has been injured due to another party’s negligence, you may be surprised to know that, in most cases arising under Florida law, you do not have a legal right to sue the responsible party’s insurance company directly. This is true even if you were contacted soon after the accident by a representative of the insurance company and have never even spoken directly with the person or business that caused your injury.

The rationale for the “nonjoinder statute,” as it is called by the courts, is that a jury should not be told whether a defendant has liability insurance because an award of damages would be more likely if the jury knows that an insurance company (rather than the negligent party) would actually be writing the check at the end of the day. In the recent case of Starr Indemnity & Liability Co. v. Morris, the plaintiff attempted to find a way around this general rule by asserting a breach of contract claim, rather than a negligence action, against the insurance company under a medical payment provision.

The Facts of the Case

The defendants were a sport fishing company and its insurance provider. The plaintiff was a woman who slipped and fell aboard a ship owned by the company while on a fishing trip in the Florida Keys with her grandchild in 2013. Since the woman was seriously hurt in the fall and believed that the company was at fault in creating the conditions that led to her injuries, she filed a lawsuit against the company, the captain of the ship, and the insurance provider. The claims against the company and the captain alleged negligence, but the claim against the insurance provider alleged breach of contract under a provision of the insurance policy that pertained to payment of medical expenses in the event of an injury aboard the company’s vessel.

The Trial Court’s Decision

The insurance provider filed a motion to dismiss the woman’s claim against it on the ground that it was barred under the Florida nonjoinder statute. The woman responded that the statute only barred direct negligence actions against insurers and that, since her claim against the insurance provider sounded in contract rather than negligence, the statute did not apply. The trial court agreed and denied the insurance provider’s motion.

The Determination of the Court of Appeals

On appeal to the Third District Court of Appeal, the insurance company sought a writ of certiorari based on the trial court’s denial of its motion to dismiss. Alternatively, it sought to sever the woman’s claim against the insurance provider based on the Florida nonjoinder statute. The court granted the insurer’s motion in part, directing the trial court to sever the woman’s breach of contract claim against the insurance provider from her negligence claim against the company and the captain. The court refused to dismiss the woman’s action against the insurance provider with prejudice as the provider had requested, however, ruling instead that the nonjoinder statute did not technically apply to the woman’s claim that she was an insured under the policy terms but that there was no reason for the actions to be tried together.

To Speak to an Attorney about Your Accident Case

As this case illustrates, insurance companies will go to lengthy measures to limit their financial exposure. If you have been hurt in a premises liability accident, car wreck, or other personal injury accident, you need a lawyer who will protect your interests. Insurance adjusters often discourage injured people from hiring an attorney by implying that a settlement will be simpler and more generous if the matter stays out of the courts. The fact is that the opposite is usually true. If you are tired of playing the waiting game with an insurance company adjuster who says one thing but means another, call the law firm of Cohn & Smith today at (954)431-8100. We are currently accepting cases throughout South Florida, including Fort Lauderdale and Pembroke Pines.

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