Erie Insurance Exchange v. Larose, 2D15-5750 (Fla. 2d DCA October 19, 2016)
“The mere provision of coverage for accidents nationwide is not enough, standing alone, to confer jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant insurer.”
Albert Larose was in Florida in 2013 driving a vehicle owned by a Wisconsin company. Larose was injured in an accident with an underinsured motorist, and he made a claim against the Wisconsin company’s insurer, Erie Insurance Exchange, a Pennsylvania company that is licensed to do business in Wisconsin but not in Florida. The policy provides coverage for accidents involving insured vehicles anywhere in the United States. Erie denied the claim.
Larose filed suit against Erie in the Circuit Court of Pinellas County, Florida, and Erie argued that the court lacked personal jurisdiction because Larose had not shown that (1) Erie’s conduct fell under Florida’s long-arm statute or (2) Erie’s “minimum contacts” with Florida were sufficient to satisfy constitutional due process and thereby justify haling Erie into a Florida court, both of which are necessary to establish personal jurisdiction. (If this discussion is evoking fond memories of law school civil procedure classics like International Shoe, Burger King v. Rudzewicz, and World-Wide Volkswagen, we are only too happy to bring such joy to our readers.) The trial court rejected Erie’s arguments on both counts and declared that personal jurisdiction did exist.
On appeal, the Second District agreed that Erie’s action did come under Florida’s long-arm statute, section 48.193, Florida Statutes. If Erie did indeed owe money to Larose, then the breach of contract occurred in Florida, where Larose resided and where payment would have been due to him. See § 48.193(1)(a)(7), Fla. Stat.
On the minimum contacts issue, however, the appellate court rejected Larose’s argument that Erie’s provision of nationwide coverage should make it foreseeable that Erie might be haled into court in Florida. As the court emphasized, “foreseeability does not define the limits of constitutional due process, which is based on the defendant’s purposeful contacts with the state rather than mere foreseeability.” The court noted that Erie is a Pennsylvania insurer that issued a policy to a Wisconsin corporation to cover vehicles principally garaged in Wisconsin, that Erie is not licensed in Florida, does no business in Florida, has no office in Florida, and has never sought to do business in Florida.
In short, Erie did nothing to purposely avail itself of the privilege of conducting business in Florida. The minimum contacts analysis focuses on conduct of the defendant that would create a connection with the forum state such that he should reasonably anticipate being haled into court there. Unilateral acts by the plaintiff, such as driving the insured car outside of its principal state, do not create such minimum contacts for the defendant. Thus, nationwide coverage does not, by itself, constitute the minimum contacts necessary to satisfy due process. As personal jurisdiction did not exist, the Second District reversed and remanded for dismissal. Larose may still seek redress in a more appropriate forum. You can read the opinion here.
My take: Attorneys embarking on lawsuits against regional out-of-state insurance companies need to pay careful attention to the “minimum contacts” question before filing their complaint. Considerable time and expense can be wasted initiating a lawsuit in Florida that should have been started in another state.
–Tom Regnier, November 30, 2016
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