The double deductible problem in Florida

In a statistical sense, the probability that the same property is damaged by multiple hurricanes is surely a rare event.  However, this is a situation which many property owners in Florida now face.  The print media is filled these days with examples of policyholders whose properties have sustained separate damages from Hurricanes Charlie and Frances who will likely have to pay two deductibles.  Hopefully this won’t become an n deductible problem; obviously whether n will be greater than or equal to two will depend upon how the rest of the hurricane season plays out.

While one cannot help but be sympathetic toward people who face such financial hardships, it is also important to think through this issue in a logical fashion. Under most property insurance contracts, claims and deductible payments are related to a specific insured event.  The insurance policy promises to make the property owner whole after an insured event occurs (where being made whole is defined as paying the difference between the property damage related to the insured event and the deductible).  Even if a policyholder suffers the misfortune of multiple (e.g., 2, 3, …, n) different hurricanes affecting the same property, contractually these represent multiple insured events, not one.  Consequently, n deductibles apply.  Similarly, a person who has the misfortune of being involved in multiple car accidents is not afforded the option of treating multiple accidents as one event; in fact, these are multiple events and each event has its own claim settlement process.

A useful way to think about the double deductible problem is to relate it conceptually to the World Trade Center controversy.  In that case, there was one insured event; specifically, a coordinated strike by terrorists on the two buildings.  Although it could be (and certainly was) argued that were two insured events, the court’s decision to treat it as one event appropriately came down to a question of policy language, which is why the “one event” position eventually prevailed in that case.  In the case of Florida homeowners insurance, multiple deductibles follow as a logical consequence of (state regulated) homeowners insurance policy forms which require separate claims and deductibles for damage on separately named storms.  From a contractual standpoint, Hurricanes Charles and Frances were clearly two different insured events, so two deductibles (or three if Ivan also ends up hitting the same property) would seem appropriate and consistent with standard policy form contract language and legal principles of insurance.

In all likelihood, the state of Florida will end up considering various regulatory reforms once this hurricane season is over.  Even Florida governor Jeb Bush has weighed in on this issue, suggesting that the double deductible is something that might need to be changed because of the financial hardship that this creates for many property owners.  In my view, a constructive approach would involve giving consumers the option to choose between a policy based upon the current policy form, and an alternative policy that would enable consumers to insure against aggregate losses.  Contractually, the latter policy type would closely resemble a typical health insurance contract which has a “stop loss” provision built in for aggregate losses.  Since the alternative policy would provide consumers with the opportunity of insuring against paying multiple deductibles, consumers could expect to pay more for the alternative policy than for the current policy.  Besides offering consumers greater choice, such a policy reform would improve market efficiency.  So long as these contracts are fairly priced, chances are that the worse-than-average risks would tend to gravitate toward the stop loss policy, whereas the better-than-average risks would tend to gravitate toward the current policy form.