Once a person dies, F.S. 733.2121 requires the personal representative of decedent’s estate publish a “notice to creditors,” granting a window of time during which claims against the estate may be made. So even though Florida law allows four years for personal injury claims in most cases, the window of time for claims against a person who is deceased is much shorter.
Personal representatives are required to “reasonably” seek out known creditors of decedent and give them the opportunity to file a claim within three months. However, this notice is also published in the local newspaper, and extensive searches for creditors are not required by statute. Claims filed after two years of the notice may be forever barred.
Similar statutes are in place in Montana, where the case of Locke v. Estate of Davis was weighed by the Montana Supreme Court. A failure to file a claim within the four-month window allotted in that state – but before the expiration of the state’s statute of limitations on personal injury filings – meant the insurance company was only required to pay the policy limit, regardless of the judgment awarded by the court. In this case, that meant $300,000 less than what plaintiff deserved.
According to court records, plaintiff was struck by decedent’s vehicle after decedent lost control and crossed into oncoming traffic. As a result of that traffic collision, the at-fault driver died. Plaintiff, meanwhile, sustained severe personal injuries. Those included fractures and numerous soft tissue injuries. Additionally, she claimed to have suffered a great deal of mental anguish and pain and suffering as a result of the accident.
Decedent’s estate filed a notice of claims – to be filed within four months – in July 2011, just two months after the crash. However, plaintiff did not file her personal injury claim until August 2012. She asserted damages in excess of $250,000. Decedent’s insurance policy limited coverage to $100,000 per person per accident.
Insurer paid slightly more than $16,000 for medical expenses. Plaintiff repeatedly attempted to settle with defendant prior to trial for the policy limit, but insurer refused.
A jury trial was held. Estate conceded decedent’s liability for the crash, so the only issue before the court was how much the estate should pay in damages. The jury awarded decedent $400,000 plus interest and costs.
Estate filed a motion to amend judgment to be reduced to $100,000, citing plaintiff’s failure to file her claim within four months of the public notification issued in 2011. That fact, estate argued, limited the amount plaintiff could recover to the insurance policy limits. With the advance she was given for medical expenses, she would thus only be entitled to collect $84,000. Estate further argued plaintiff couldn’t collect from the insurer because the insurance company wasn’t a named party in the lawsuit.
District court denied the estate’s motion, noting insurer was liable and in fact had waived its policy limits when it refused to settle.
Montana Supreme Court affirmed in part and vacated in part. The insurance company was liable despite not being a named party in the case, justices ruled, but because claim was not timely filed after the estate issued notice, plaintiff was indeed entitled to only the policy limit, minus the amount already paid.
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Locke v. Estate of Davis , May 26, 2015, Montana Supreme Court
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