Red Light Camera Tickets in Florida – Fair Game?

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A notice appears in your mailbox.  The envelope has a return address from New York or another random state.  Inside the envelope is a traffic citation, with various color photographs of your vehicle breezing through a red light in a nearby town.  Listed on the citation is your license plate number, date and time of the infraction, and most intrusively, a fine in the amount of $158.00.  To top it off, the Notice provides thirty short days to pay the fine or to challenge the citation in a Florida court.

The first thing that runs through your mind is how is this even possible?  Was I driving my vehicle on this particular date and on this particular time?  Had I loaned my car to a spouse or to a friend?  Why is New York citing me for a traffic infraction that allegedly occurred in Florida?  Is any of this nonsense even lawful?  The notice from New York seems to be legitimate.

Red light cameras are popping up all over Florida.  Depending on your location in the State may determine if the citation is lawful.  Specifically, the 5th District Court of Appeals (Orange, Seminole and surrounding counties) held that the City of Orlando does not have the specific authority under Florida Statute to impose such penalties.  Specifically, the 5th DCA held that the imposition of additional penalties, over and above those already imposed by Florida’s legislature, do not fall within the specific authority granted to municipalities by Florida’s Constitution.

Conversely, the 3rd District Court of Appeals (Miami-Dade and Monroe counties) held that City of Aventura does have the authority to impose penalties based on red light camera infractions.  The 3rd DCA held that such penalties do not invalidate the legislative intent behind the uniform traffic laws and specifications set out by Florida’s Department of Transportation.

The Florida Supreme Court heard oral arguments in November and will presumably render a decision early in 2014 regarding the lawfulness of the red light citations.  What does this mean for people who get these tickets in the meantime?  First and foremost, there are valid and lawful ways to challenge these citations.  Upon notice of one of these citations, immediately contact an experienced attorney in your area.  Remember that you MUST decide within thirty days whether you are going to challenge the ticket or pay the fine.

Contact your friends at Cohen Battisti for a free consultation and an explanation of your rights.

Article written by Paul Zeniewicz, Esquire

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Floridians Face Surging Rate Hikes in National Flood Insurance Program

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The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which is supervised by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is set to increase premiums in 2014.  The cost is steep for Florida, which holds 37 percent of the federal flood insurance program’s policies.

Homeowners who are renewing their insurance face skyrocketing premiums, up to 20 percent in communities like Pinellas County.  he high premiums are a result of changes to the NFIP, being implemented by the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act.

With Florida having more coastline than any state, Floridians have more flood policies and pay more into the program.  The flood insurance rate increases affect Florida home sales and other title transfers. Although Florida theoretically stands the highest chance of flooding, Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy led to more NFIP claims being made in other states than Florida.  Not only does Florida have the highest number of subsidized flood insurance policies, it is the state with the highest exposure to pay into claims, at $475 billion.  Texas and Louisiana have the second and third highest exposure, at $162 billion and $112 billion, respectively.

ImageCourtesy of NRDC

According to a recent report by the Center for Competitive Florida, which analyzes the changes in the NFIP, Superstorm Sandy claims were estimated at up to $15 billion.  Comparatively, Florida had $407 million in Tropical Storm Isaac claims in 2012.

Another study, conducted by the Wharton Center for Risk Management and Decision Processes, compared the amount of claims paid to the amount of premiums collected and revealed that Florida paid $3.60 for every dollar NFIP paid in a flood claim anywhere.  The study showed that 11 states received more in payouts than was paid in premiums by the states’ policyholders over the course of 30 years.

Currently, the NFIP is $24 billion in debt. Thus, Congress passed the Flood Insurance Reform Act.  The goal of the reforms is to reduce the debt by eliminating subsidized rates on older homes that don’t represent the properties’ true flood risk, and make the program more stable.  Previously, rate increases were capped at 10 percent, but some Floridians risk paying four or six times their current rate, or even more.

Florida legislators are attempting to get a delay or roll back of the new rates passed before the session closes for the year, but Congress has yet to agree to delay any changes to the implementation of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act.

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Universal Property and Casualty agrees to pay $1.2M Fine, End “Post-Claim Underwriting”

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The days of Universal Property and Casualty Insurance Company’s now well-known “post-claim underwriting” practices, which led to many homeowner’s having their property damage claims denied or have their policies canceled, and without the required notice of cancellation, are over.  The property insurance giant has agreed to implement corrective action, change its policies and procedures and pay the $1.26 million fine ordered by Florida’s Office of Insurance Regulation.

This insurance company’s unjust denial of claims and cancellation of policies due to improper handling of claims resulted in numerous consumer complaints that were eventually brought to the attention of Florida’s Insurance Consumer Advocate, who at the time was Robin Westcott.  The Insurance Consumer Advocate worked with the Office of Insurance Regulation, the agency responsible for overseeing that insurance companies are following proper procedures, to investigate the complaints that consumers had against Universal.  The investigation revealed that Universal had been using their customers’ credit history information as a basis to issue denials on property damage claims, well after the time when policy underwriting was completed.

Essentially, Universal had been issuing policies and collecting insurance premiums after only conducting a partial underwriting of insurance policies, and then waiting until a homeowner filed an insurance claim to finish the process.  In many instances, Universal alleged that the reason a claim was denied or a policy cancelled is because during the claims handling process, was based on a misrepresentation made by a homeowner on an insurance application.  This would include, for example, if homeowners did not disclose a prior lien or judgment on the insurance application.  Such information is publicly accessible in county records, and easily obtainable by an insurance company during the original policy underwriting process.

In May 2013, the Office of Insurance Regulation issued an Order with its findings that Universal had unnecessarily caused delays in paying claims to their customers, as well as denied claims and cancelled policies following the improper “post-claim underwriting” practices and in violation of Florida Statutes. Insurers are required to return unearned insurance premiums to the policyholder within fifteen days of the policy cancellation, and are required to give the policyholder proper and timely notice of the cancellation

Universal was ordered to pay $1.26 million in administrative fines as a result of the investigation conducted.  Initially Universal challenged the Prior Order, but in October 2013, it signed a Consent Order, and agreed to implement changes to its claims handling and underwriting practices, as well as pay the fine.  Universal will review 262 claims it previously denied on the basis of application misrepresentations.  After Citizens, Universal is the second-largest property insurer in Florida, with more than 542,000 policyholders.

See the Consent Order in full.

Citizens Changes Underwriting Guidelines to Include Sinkhole Properties

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Citizens Property Insurance Corporation has recommenced issuing policies on homes with prior sinkhole claims.  The new changes to Citizens’ underwriting guidelines, approved by the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation, now allow policies for properties that have had repairs from prior sinkhole damage.

The underwriting rules require that homeowners be able to prove, with documentation and photographs, that the sinkhole damage on their property has been repaired pursuant to recommendations from approved engineers.  Homeowners who can show that their sinkhole damage has been partially repaired, or repaired using alternative methods can also still be covered under the new policies for some perils, but the new policies may not include coverage for a sinkhole in Florida.

Sinkholes form when limestone dissolves bedrock over time, and the surface land collapses.  Depending on the circumstances, they can be filled with dirt, sand or concrete to support the foundation of a home.  At one time, all Florida homeowner policies were required to have sinkhole coverage, but after years of insurance companies complaining that many sinkhole claims were fraudulent, and sinkhole claims tripling from 2006-2010, the Florida legislature passed a law limiting sinkhole coverage in 2011.

The new insurance coverage availability with Citizens, which went into effect on Oct. 31, is especially significant in Pasco and Hernando Counties, where real estate sales and property values sank in part because an estimated 20,000 properties were not insurable due to sinkhole risk.  Homeowners with prior sinkhole claims did not qualify for property or storm coverage, even if the sinkhole damage was repaired.

Now, homeowners and potential buyers in the Tampa-area counties of Pasco, Hernando, Hillsborough and Pinellas, known collectively as “Sinkhole Alley”, can apply for mortgages that require insurance, when they previously would not qualify due to sinkhole damage.

The announcement for Citizens’ underwriting changes regarding sinkhole properties was made in New Port Richey, Fl. at a Nov. 20 meeting held by the Florida Association for Insurance Reform (FAIR) and the Pasco County and Hernando County Realtors.  In the week before the announcement, two homes in Dunedin, located in Pinellas County, were swallowed by a 90-foot wide sinkhole, and residents in several nearby homes were evacuated until the sinkhole was determined to be stable enough to be filled.