A federal judge heard arguments Friday over whether to block an important part of a new Florida property insurance bill, with a Hillsborough County construction company arguing the move violated First Amendment rights.
Gale Force Roofing and Restoration, LLC filed a lawsuit last month contesting part of the law aimed at preventing contractors from advertising to induce property owners to claim roof damage. The company claims the law violates the right to speak and its lawyers have filed for an injunction.
Senior District Judge Mark Walker held a hearing on the restraining order on Friday but had not published a ruling on the court record by 6:30 p.m.
The legislature passed the insurance measure (SB 76) on April 30 amid rising property insurance tariffs and insurers abandoning policies. Proponents of the bill and representatives of the insurance industry argued that questionable, if not fraudulent, roof damage claims played a large role in the increase in costs.
The measure would prevent contractors from soliciting homeowners’ claims for roof damage through “prohibited advertising” that could include emails, door hangers, flyers and brochures.
In the lawsuit, Gale Force Roofing and Restoration said it is soliciting homeowners to contact the company for inspections of storm damage to roofs.
“The plaintiff (Gale Force Roofing and Restoration) will then truthfully tell the homeowners the type and extent of the damage,” the lawsuit said. “The plaintiff will then encourage homeowners to contact their insurance company to make a claim under their home insurance policy and contract with the plaintiff to transfer the benefits available under the homeowner’s insurance policy to the plaintiff.”
The lawsuit states that the company is violating the new law, which went into effect July 1. It also states that the law aims to reduce the number of insurance claims filed, rather than targeting fraud.
“The law is an unscrupulous assault on homeowners’ right to receive truthful information about how to perform repairs and pay for the repairs to fix damage to their property,” the company’s lawyers wrote. “In reality, it is a thinly veiled attempt to prevent someone from helping homeowners make valid insurance claims to repair their homes.”
But in a trial Wednesday, attorneys for Secretary of State for Economic Affairs and Professional Regulation Julie Brown – the defendant named in the case – denied that the law’s restrictions violated the rights of the First Amendment.
The file says: “Targeted digital advertising or e-mails, door hangers or personally handed brochures are prohibited if and only if they encourage a homeowner to take out roof insurance. Radio and television advertising is allowed because it does not target ‘a specific person’. “
The filing also states that Florida has a “compelling government interest” in ensuring homeowners are protected from skyrocketing insurance rates and have access to coverage. The document states that contractor fraud drives costs up.
“This means hundreds of dollars in premiums for some homeowners and denial of coverage for others,” Brown’s attorneys wrote. “In Florida, this type of scam is particularly prevalent given concerns about hurricane-related roof damage and the propensity of unscrupulous contractors to take advantage of homeowners who cannot readily assess whether their roofs need servicing. The state’s interest in regulating this type of commercial speech is obviously considerable. “