American Home Assur. Co. v. Junger, — So.2d —-, 2008 WL 1958615 (Fla. 3d DCA May 07, 2008)

It’s not unusual for probate lawyers to have to figure out what to do when a lost deed or contract needs to be reestablished for some reason. The linked-to opinion is a great resource because it tells us what burden of proof to expect. Although not directly cited by the 3d DCA, I’m assuming the plaintiff filed her claim under Florida’s general-purpose “lost instruments” statute: F.S. 71.011.

Evidence of Lost Insurance Policy:

The decedent’s spouse, Mrs. Junger, won at trial and the court entered a judgment in her favor reestablishing her late husband’s life insurance policy and awarding her $302,888 in death benefits and prejudgment interest. From a practitioner’s viewpoint it’s useful to know what evidence she used at trial to reestablish the life insurance policy. Here’s how the 3d DCA summarized the winning evidence:

Following a bench trial, the court determined that Mrs. Junger was entitled to the death benefits described in the MAC Agreement. While neither party could produce a copy of the insurance policy, Mrs. Junger introduced the MAC Agreement into evidence as well as the correspondence among her late husband, Eastern Air Lines, and AHA. These documents confirmed that AHA issued a check to Captain Junger for $50,000 in disability benefits under “policy number 9902046” for an illness incurred while he was working for the MAC Operation. Captain Junger’s cardiologist tied Captain Junger’s later death to that covered illness.

The trial court concluded that the MAC Agreement evidenced the primary terms of coverage-terms confirmed by AHA’s payment of the disability claim-and awarded Mrs. Junger the death benefits plus interest.

Standard of Proof for Lost Insurance Policies:

On appeal the key issue was what burden of proof should the trial court have applied: the “preponderance of the evidence” standard or the more stringent “clear and convincing evidence” standard. The 3d DCA agreed with the trial court’s application of the lower standard based on the following analysis:

In support of its lost instrument argument, AHA cites a number of Florida cases that hold a clear and convincing standard of proof applies when a party has the burden of proving the contents of a lost instrument. None of these cases, however, deals with a lost insurance policy. See Fries v. Griffin, 17 So. 66, 68 (Fla.1895) (lost deed); Am. Sav. & Loan Ass’n of Fla. v. Atl. Inv. Corp., 436 So.2d 442, 443 (Fla. 4th DCA 1983) (lost lease agreement); Weinsier v. Soffer, 358 So.2d 61 (Fla. 3d DCA 1978) (lost loan agreement); Locke v. Pyle, 349 So.2d 813 (Fla. 1st DCA 1977) (lost deed).FN3 AHA submits that no Florida case applies this standard of proof to a lost insurance policy, and we have found none.

We find the lost instruments in the cases cited by AHA warrant a heightened evidentiary standard because deeds, wills, oral contracts and the like are susceptible to fraud. See 9 John Henry Wigmore, Wigmore on Evidence § 2498(3) (James H. Chadbourn rev.1981). Insurance policies identified by number and known to have been issued by the insurer, on the other hand, are not as vulnerable to fraud as these other instruments. This is so because “[t]he evidence used to establish the existence and contents of [insurance] policies is usually comprised of business records and standard forms made by and found in the possession of the party against whom they are being offered.” Remington Arms Co. v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 810 F.Supp. 1420, 1425-26 (D.Del.1992).

Similarly, the Law Revision Council Note to section 90.803(6), Florida Statutes (1976), provides that the reliability of business records justifies an exception to the hearsay rule.FN4 This exception underscores the likelihood that an insurance policy, presumably in the records of the insurer which issued it, is not vulnerable to fraudulent assertions by an insured seeking to prove the policy’s contents and coverage.FN5 Accordingly, we find that an insured seeking to prove coverage under a lost insurance policy (a policy identifiable and shown to have been issued or acknowledged by the insurer) need only do so by the usual and less-stringent preponderance of the evidence standard.

Lesson learned?

If you’re trying to reestablish a lost or destroyed document that could result in someone else having to pay your client money, expect resistance. This opinion let’s you plan accordingly. If the goal is to reestablish a lost insurance policy, at least in the 3d DCA you now know you’ll be subject to the less-stringent preponderance of the evidence standard. By contrast, if the goal is to reestablish a lost or destroyed deed, lease agreement or loan agreement you’ll have to be ready to satisfy the much tougher clear and convincing evidence standard.