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Florida legislators look to curb windshield-damage lawsuits

Rep. Griff Griffitts, R-Panama City Beach, is sponsoring a bill to try to curb lawsuits over windshield-damage claims.
Colin Hackley
News Service of Florida
Rep. Griff Griffitts, R-Panama City Beach, is sponsoring a bill to try to curb lawsuits over windshield-damage claims.

Amid a debate pitting insurers against independent auto-glass shops, Florida lawmakers started moving forward with a proposal aimed at preventing lawsuits over windshield-damage claims.

The House Insurance & Banking Subcommittee approved a bill (HB 541) that would bar a controversial practice known as “assignment of benefits” that insurers contend fuels lawsuits over claims. Also, the bill would prevent glass shops from offering such things as gift cards and rebates to motorists making claims.

“This measure will help fight fraud and litigation and hopefully move the auto-insurance premiums in the right direction,” bill sponsor Griff Griffitts, R-Panama City Beach, told the House panel.

But auto-glass shop owners said the bill could put them out of business and that insurers often don’t pay fairly for their work.

“We just want to work hard, we want to be paid a fair rate,” said Bill Camp, owner of At Home Auto Glass in Sarasota and Tallahassee. “We do not want to litigate, at all. I wish that we would never have to litigate again.”

Lawmakers in recent years have considered similar proposals targeting auto-glass claims, but this year’s legislation comes as the House and Senate appear poised to take a series of broad steps to curb lawsuits against businesses and insurance companies.

The Senate Banking and Insurance Committee is scheduled Wednesday to take up an auto-glass bill (SB 1002) that is similar to Griffitts’ proposal. Meanwhile, the full House is slated Thursday to consider a separate, wide-ranging measure (HB 837) to try to reduce litigation.

Auto-glass shop owners Tuesday described a system similar to the health-care industry, where some doctors are “in network” with insurance companies and others are not. In-network auto glass shops receive referrals from insurers and are paid at lower rates than out-of-network shops, according to the owners.

The debate centers on out-of-network shops, who also compete with large companies such as Safelite AutoGlass.

In addition to being backed by insurers and business groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida, Griffitts’ bill has support from state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.

Insurance companies have long blamed assignment of benefits for increasing amounts and costs of litigation, with lawmakers in December banning the practice in property-insurance claims.

Assignment of benefits, or AOB, involves policyholders signing over claims to contractors, who then pursue payment from insurers. Contractors argue assigning benefits can help consumers, who might not have experience dealing with insurance companies, and can get claims paid fully.

Mark Delegal, a lobbyist for State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., pointed Tuesday to a need to do away with assignment of benefits for auto-glass claims and to eliminate incentives for motorists to make claims.

“These things (assignment of benefits) are often obtained under duress or with a box of steaks,” Delegal said.

But Rob Arnold, of the firm Mr. Auto Glass, said passing the bill would “put the ball in the court of insurance companies where they can stipulate how much we get reimbursed, how much we get paid.”

“Quite simply, if they paid the bill, we wouldn’t be litigating,” he said. “And all we want to do is get paid a fair and reasonable rate.”

Two members of the House panel, however, recounted experiences of being approached about filing unnecessary windshield-damage claims.

Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, R-Saint Johns, said she was “solicited in the parking lot of Target to fix my windshield, which had no problem, and they would give me

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