November 16th, 2018
By, Alex Brockmeyer, Esq.,
Most insurance policies have some sort of provision that addresses what happens when an insured misrepresents or attempts to defraud an insurer. This provision, otherwise known as a “fraud provision” or “forfeiture provision” varies in effect depending on its breadth. In Flores v. Allstate Ins. Co., 819 So. 2d 740 (Fla. 2002), the Florida Supreme Court identified three types of fraud/forfeiture provisions:
- those that state any misrepresentation will void the entire policy or policy;
- those that state that any misrepresentation as to a particular coverage voids coverage under that part; and
- those that neither reference the “entire policy” nor “this coverage part.”
Id. at 748. Things become interesting when an insurance policy does not contain language that falls within either the first or second category. When a fraud/forfeiture provision does not clearly void the entire policy or a particular coverage, insurers may still attempt to prove fraud or misrepresentation to void the entire policy. In such circumstances, Flores directs courts to use Florida’s well-established rules of insurance policy interpretation. Id. at 750.
Insurers retain control over the scope of their coverage and can alter policy language when desired. To that end, insurers must incorporate unambiguous language into its policy. See Berkshire Life Ins. Co. v. Adelberg, 698 So. 2d 828, 830 (Fla. 1997). Ambiguity exists whenever terms of the policy are subject to different reasonable interpretations, one that provides coverage and one that does not, or where more than one interpretation of a policy provision fairly exists. Weldon v. All Am. Life Ins. Co., 605 So. 2d 911, 915 (Fla. 2d DCA 1992). Where ambiguity exists, Florida law requires courts adopt the interpretation affording coverage. Westmoreland v. Lumbermens Mut. Cas. Co., 704 So. 2d 176, 179 (Fla. 4th DCA 1997). Florida uses this standard because an insured is “entitled to a clear explanation of terms rather than a fine distinction which was never written into his contract for insurance coverage.” Adelberg, 698 So. 2d at 830.
Applying these principles, Flores held a fraud/forfeiture provision that does not fall into either the first or second categories, must be interpreted as only effecting the specific portion of the claim connected to the misrepresentation or fraud. Flores, 819 So. 2d at 750. For example then, a misrepresentation in connection with a PIP claim does not preclude the insured from recovering under the uninsured/underinsured portion of his policy. Id. In the homeowners’ insurance policy context, other courts have reached similar conclusions. For example, in Tempelis v. Aetna Cas. & Surety Co., 485 N.W. 2d 217 (Wis. 1992), the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that an insured was entitled to recover under the dwelling and contents portions of the insurance policy even though a misrepresentation occurred in connection with the insured’s additional living expenses. Id. at 222.
In conclusion, policy language matters and insureds, insurers, and courts alike should be mindful of policy language when a fraud/forfeiture provision is at issue.