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Florida Appeals Court Rules for Broader Coverage of Insurance for Separate Occurrences of Injury, Maddox v. Florida Farm Bureau General Insurance Company, Case No. 5D12-3577 (5th DCA 2014)

Litigation regarding homeowner's insurance almost always stems from an insurance company's denial of a claim. These disputes arise due to disagreements over the scope of coverage, and one of those disagreements are over personal liability coverage under the policy. Our homeowners insurance lawyers often see insurance companies trying to limit their responsibility to cover injuries under the policy, and as the case below illustrates, courts will interpret any ambiguities in coverage arising from language in the policy against the insurance company and likely rule for broader coverage.

In Maddox v. Florida Farm Bureau General Insurance Company, the plaintiff, and her two children lived with her boyfriend and his two dogs. The boyfriend had a homeowner's insurance policy with Florida Farm Bureau. The policy provided the homeowner with personal liability insurance coverage up to $100,000 for each occurrence of harm. The insurance policy defines a single occurrence as an accident that results in bodily injury or property damage. One day, one of the homeowner's dogs bit the plaintiff and one of her children, causing serious injuries. The plaintiff filed a complaint against the homeowner seeking damages. Florida Farm Bureau then asked the court to enter declaratory judgment stating that the whole dog attack on both the plaintiff and her child counted as a single occurrence under the insurance policy. Therefore, Florida Farm Bureau asked the court to rule that it was not liable to pay any damages to the plaintiff. The company argued that the damages the plaintiff claimed for her injuries were part of the same occurrence as the damages suffered by her child. Furthermore, the insurance company already paid the amount limit - $100,000 - to the child. The trial court granted the insurance company's request and held that both injuries were subject to the single occurrence limit in the policy. The plaintiff appealed.

The Fifth District Court of Appeal agreed with the plaintiff that the dog bite she suffered was separate from the dog bite her child sustained. According to the court, Florida adheres to the cause theory, which relies on reasons for a party's injuries to determine the number of separate occurrences under an applicable insurance policy. In this case, the court found that the dog bite that inflicted the plaintiff's injuries was a different dog bite from the one that inflicted her child's injuries. Although it is reasonable to interpret the occurrence as the whole dog attack involving both parties or as each particular dog bite, the court has to construe any ambiguities in the policy against the insurance company.

Notably, the Fifth District's opinion was not unanimous. One dissenting judge stated that the injuries, in this case, was not caused by another person, but by a dog during one sustained attack. According to the dissent, the dog was out of control when it bit both the plaintiff and her son, and the dog was a single force that caused both injuries. Therefore, the dissent concluded that a single occurrence covers both injuries.

Homeowner's insurance issues are rarely straightforward. They often involve complex issues around the interpretation of the policy. If your insurance company denied your homeowner's insurance claim and you believe such denial was wrong, the Miami homeowner's insurance lawyers at Greenberg, Stone & Urbano offer the assistance you need to obtain the results you desire. With over 130 collective years of experience representing homeowner's insurance clients across South Florida, our firm provides legal representation of unmatched excellence. Contact our firm as soon as possible to start on the road to protecting your legal rights. Our firm received an AV rating from Martindale-Hubbell and was ranked as a top firm in South Florida by the Miami Herald. Put our exceptional personal injury attorneys to work on your case. Call us at (888) 499-9700 or (305) 595-2400 or you can visit our website to schedule your initial consultation.

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