Tag Archives: Sinkhole Insurance

Second DCA Finds Florida Peninsula Does Not Have to Provide Sinkhole Coverage under Policy Without Sinkhole Coverage

Florida Peninsula Home Insurance

fist-pump-baby

In a sinkhole case where I handled the underlying litigation for Florida Peninsula, the Second DCA determined Florida Peninsula was not required to provide sinkhole coverage to an insured who did not have sinkhole coverage.

I know how funny that headline may sound to you; however, the Plaintiff’s attorney argued that the policy was ambiguous for the following reasons:

  • the policy’s “Checklist of Coverage” had a “Y” next to the word “Sinkhole;”
  • the insurance agent testified she selected sinkhole coverage;
  • Florida Peninsula allegedly did not comply with certain notice requirements for excluding sinkhole loss; and
  • part of the policy discussed the Neutral Evaluation process.

If you want to know more about each of these arguments, please review the order embedded at the end of this post.

The Plaintiff’s law firm, Thompson Trial Group, did such a good job at the trial stage that they convinced the trial court that, as a matter of law, the Plaintiff had sinkhole coverage. At the trial court level, I explained to the trial court that all of Plaintiff’s argument fail as a matter of law. The Second DCA’s rationale set forth in the opinion reflects exactly what our arguments were at the trial stage. In short, statutes and case law clearly negated the Plaintiff’s arguments for coverage, and the exclusions were clear … to say the least. Nevertheless, the trial court reasoned that the Neutral Evaluation provision created an ambiguity.

Some other “fact” arguments in Florida Peninsula’s favor included:

  • Plaintiff did not pay the premium for “sinkhole loss;” and
  • Plaintiff did not even remember if she tried to obtain sinkhole coverage.

Not only did I set forth all of the legal principles outlining why Plaintiff’s counterarguments failed as a matter of law; I actually obtained raw computer data showing that the Plaintiff’s agent did not select sinkhole coverage. To try to save the costs of having to prove this matter at the appellate level, we wanted to cover all of our bases in the unlikely event that a fact issue remained.

Unlike the trial court, the Second DCA acknowledged my arguments (through other appellate counsel) that all of the Plaintiff’s legal arguments were not sufficient under Florida law. Although the trial court granted summary judgment for the Plaintiff, the Second DCA (1) reversed the trial court’s summary judgment for Plaintiff AND (2) remanded it to the trial court to enter judgment for Florida Peninsula.

After waiting years for this decision, I am very pleased and happy that Florida Peninsula trusted us to take the risks of pursuing this matter all the way through its conclusion.

* Of course, the ruling is not final until time for a rehearing has passed, and Plaintiff is free to appeal this matter to the Florida Supreme Court.

Here is the complete order:

Download (PDF, 97KB)


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Florida Sinkhole Homeowners Insurance Update Regarding the Second DCA on Sinkhole Burden of Proof

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

Brief Summary

In Mejia v. Citizens, Florida’s Second DCA held that Citizens had the burden of proof to show that sinkhole activity was not the cause of the plaintiff’s property damage. Once Mejia proved the property suffered a loss during the policy period, Citizens was required to show that the loss was excluded under this policy. In addition, the Court ruled that the amount of money Citizens paid to its engineer during the previous three years ($9.5M) was admissible.

For a copy of the Mejia opinion, scroll to the bottom of this article.

This is one of several key sinkhole homeowners insurance opinions in the last couple of months. If you missed the last few, you can read them here:

Omega v. Johnson

Contract for Repairs Argument Upheld

2011 Statutory Structural Damage Definition Applies to Policies Issued After Senate Bill 408’s Effective Date

Homeowner Not Required to Produce Sinkhole Report Before Lawsuit


How does CaseGlide Solve This Problem?

To learn more about how our proprietary claims litigation software CaseGlide solves this problem, check out our First Party Property Insurance Blog article on CaseGlide here.


The Mejia Opinion

Download (PDF, 59KB)


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Florida Sinkhole Homeowners Insurance Update Regarding Homeowner Not Required to Produce Competing Sinkhole Report Obtained After Denial

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

 Overview:

Florida’s Second DCA recently answered an important question in Florida sinkhole homeowners insurance litigation: if (1) a homeowner has a competing engineering report it obtains after an insurer denies a sinkhole claim and (2) the insurer does not request the report, the homeowner is not required to produce the report before filing a lawsuit.

In a concise opinion embedded at the end of this post, Florida’s Second DCA in Herrera v. Tower Hill determined that the insureds were not required to produce their competing engineering report prior to filing their lawsuit against Tower Hill.  In summary, Tower Hill argued that the insureds’ failure to produce the report constituted a breach of the “concealment or fraud” and the “duties after loss” provisions.

Tower Hill argued that the insureds, before filing the lawsuit, should be required to to produce the report to Tower Hill. If the insureds would have produced the report, Tower Hill could have evaluated the report and the parties could have avoided the litigation altogether. The trial court granted Tower Hill’s motion for summary judgment on these arguments.

The Second DCA reversed the trial court’s finding in favor of Tower Hill. The Second DCA explained that “[t]hese conditions apply where the insurer admits liability but disputes the recovery amount. See Tower Hill Select Ins. Co. v. McKee, 39 Fla. L. Weekly D1756, at *1. The policy did not require the Herreras to give the Geohazards report to Tower Hill unless they had the report at the time of the claim, but before Tower Hill denied it. See Surrett v. First Liberty Ins. Co., No. 8:11-cv-60-T-23MAP, 2011 WL 3879515, at *2 (M.D. Fla. Sept. 2, 2011).”

Takeaway:

This is a very popular argument for insurers; however, the Second DCA did not agree that it applied to this specific set of facts. Interestingly, the Second DCA may have “left the door open” to this argument: if Tower Hill would have requested the report at some point after it was created, the policy may have required the insureds to produce the report before the lawsuit. That’s not exactly what the opinion states; however, you have to assume the Second DCA mentioned that fact for a reason.

In addition, Tower Hill’s arguement may still provide it with a defense to the insureds’ attorney’s fees as discussed here in our analysis of Omega v. Johnson.

This is one of several key sinkhole homeowners insurance opinions in the last couple of months. If you missed the last three, you can read them here:

Omega v. Johnson

Contract for Repairs Argument Upheld

2011 Statutory Structural Damage Definition Applies to Policies Issued After Senate Bill 408’s Effective Date


As a reminder, we have the complete Herrera v. Tower Hill order embedded at the end of this post.

Let me know your thoughts on this opinion and feel free to send me a message.


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The Complete Order in Herrera v. Tower Hill

Download (PDF, 57KB)

Florida’s Fifth DCA Rules that Homeowners Insurer Does Not Have to Pay Attorneys’ Fees When it Flips Sinkhole Coverage Decision After Lawsuit

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

 Overview:

According to Florida’s Fifth DCA, a homeowners insurer can reverse its position in a sinkhole case and still not be required to pay attorneys’ fees.  Read more about Omega Insurance Company v. Johnson to find out how Omega perfectly handled a disputed sinkhole claim.


 

In Johnson v. Omega Insurance Company, Florida’s Fifth DCA held that it is possible for a homeowners insurer to make a mistake in a sinkhole case and still not have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees.  I include a full copy of the opinion at the end of this post.

Facts

Omega, a Tower Hill company, followed the statutes from the beginning to end. Relying on a report from a professional engineering and geology firm, Omega initially denied the sinkhole claim. The homeowner hired an attorney, and that attorney hired an engineer to contradict Omega’s decision. According to the homeowner’s engineer, Omega’s engineer may have been wrong – there may have been sinkhole activity causing damage.

Instead of providing this report to Omega and allowing Omega to make a decision based on the new information, the homeowner’s attorney sued Omega, and then provided the report to Omega in discovery. As discussed below, Omega was entitled to rely on its engineering and geology firm’s report.

In response to the homeowner’s lawsuit, Omega submitted the case to neutral evaluation (which we know is mandatory), and the neutral evaluator sided with the homeowner – sinkhole activity may be the cause of the damage. In response to the neutral evaluator’s opinion, Omega agreed to comply with the neutral evaluator, accepted coverage, and tendered the policy benefits to the homeowner.

Now that there was no dispute, the homeowner made her next move: a motion for confession of judgment and attorneys’ fees.

Holding

The Fifth DCA determined Omega did everything right. By complying with every Florida statute for sinkhole claims, Omega did not do anything that wrongfully led the homeowner to resort to litigation. Accordingly, Omega did not have to pay the homeowner’s attorneys’ fees.

Takeaway

As you know, the homeowners insurers that are still litigating sinkhole cases rely very heavily on these arguments. In short, the argument is that the insurer is entitled to rely on its expert absent any competing reports.  When you combine that presumption with the confession of judgment doctrine, insurers believe that they should never have to pay attorneys’ fees when a homeowner’s attorney hides a report that could have led to no lawsuit in the first place.

You can bet these insurers are relieved that their hard work paid off in this case. With hundreds of thousands of dollars per case looming over every adjuster’s head on every case, a decision the other way would have been tough for these insurers to endure.

Of course, this outcome could have been different for a number of reasons- what if the homeowner did not have the report before filing the lawsuit?  Most homeowners’ attorneys would not make this same mistake today.

The Second DCA in Colella v. State Farm has a similar holding for insurers to rely on.  In Johnson, the Fifth DCA called Colella and Johnson “strikingly similar.”

For those remaining sinkhole cases (many have settled), homeowners insurers’ attorneys will have another tool in their arsenal.

The Big Takeaways

With sinkhole claims dwindling, the big takeaway here is that this logic can be applied to other types of insurance claims.  Johnson stands for the longstanding Florida proposition that homeowners need to give insurers a chance to fully evaluate the claim instead of “hiding the ball.” The sinkhole statutes may provide an added level of protection – the presumption of correctness – but the arguments in this case are undoubtedly applicable to any other case where the homeowner withholds information in her possession before she files the lawsuit.

Additionally, if you have been following along, you may have noticed that this is the third big sinkhole case in favor of homeowners insurers in the last two weeks. If you missed the first two, you better read them here:

Contract for Repairs Argument Upheld

2011 Statutory Structural Damage Definition Applies to Policies Issued After Senate Bill 408’s Effective Date


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And here is the complete copy of the order:

Download (PDF, 78KB)

Florida Sinkhole Homeowners Insurance Update re Eleventh Circuit Rules that 2011 Structural Damage Statutory Definition Applies to Policies Issued After Senate Bill 408’s Effective Date

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

Overview

Another hundred million dollar sinkhole insurance question has finally been answered: to deny a sinkhole claim, homeowners insurers can apply the 2011 statutory definition of “structural damage” to a policy issued after May 17, 2011 even if the insurance policy did not include the statutory definition.


(For a full copy of the order, scroll to the end of this post.)

In Shelton v. Liberty Mutual, the Eleventh Circuit issued a ruling that is extremely important for sinkhole claims reported for insurance policies that were issued after May 17, 2011, the effective date of Senate Bill 408.  Although Liberty Mutual’s policy did not have the statutory definition for “structural damage” written in the policy, the Eleventh Circuit held that Liberty Mutual properly denied a sinkhole claim by relying on the “structural damage” definition in the statute – Fla. Stat. 627.706(2)(k).

Liberty Mutual’s Arguments

Liberty Mutual argued that the statutory definition controlled, even though it was not in their policy.  Liberty Mutual argued that the statutory definition is incorporated into the insurance policy, regardless of whether it is an extreme departure from the simple definition in its policy.  As you know, this is the 2011 statutory definition of “structural damage;”

(k) “Structural damage” means a covered building, regardless of the date of its construction, has experienced the following:

1. Interior floor displacement or deflection in excess of acceptable variances as defined in ACI 117-90 or the Florida Building Code, which results in settlement-related damage to the interior such that the interior building structure or members become unfit for service or represents a safety hazard as defined within the Florida Building Code;

2. Foundation displacement or deflection in excess of acceptable variances as defined in ACI 318-95 or the Florida Building Code, which results in settlement-related damage to the primary structural members or primary structural systems that prevents those members or systems from supporting the loads and forces they were designed to support to the extent that stresses in those primary structural members or primary structural systems exceeds one and one-third the nominal strength allowed under the Florida Building Code for new buildings of similar structure, purpose, or location;

3. Damage that results in listing, leaning, or buckling of the exterior load-bearing walls or other vertical primary structural members to such an extent that a plumb line passing through the center of gravity does not fall inside the middle one-third of the base as defined within the Florida Building Code;

4. Damage that results in the building, or any portion of the building containing primary structural members or primary structural systems, being significantly likely to imminently collapse because of the movement or instability of the ground within the influence zone of the supporting ground within the sheer plane necessary for the purpose of supporting such building as defined within the Florida Building Code; or

5. Damage occurring on or after October 15, 2005, that qualifies as “substantial structural damage” as defined in the Florida Building Code.

The Homeowner’s Counterarguments

The homeowner made at least two arguments:

  • because Liberty Mutual’s policy did not include the statutory definition, Liberty Mutual could not rely on the statutory definition and, therefore, had to cover sinkhole claims if there was any damage to the structure.
  • this change in the “structural definition” was a change that required heightened notice to the policyholder.

The Eleventh Circuit’s Opinion

The Eleventh Circuit rejected both arguments.

The Definition is Incorporated

The court held that the statute is a part of the insurance policy and Liberty Mutual’s policy and should be read as if it were part of it. Unfortunately for the homeowner, the court does not go into great detail regarding why this can’t be considered a situation where the insurer offers more coverage than the statute allows. This argument – that the statute provides a baseline for the coverage required but not necessarily all of it – is usually homeowners’ attorneys’ favorite argument in situations like these. Interestingly, although the Court rejected the argument, the court did not go into great detail regarding why this did not apply here.

This Change in Policy Terms Did Not Require Heightened Notice

Second, there is an entire body of case law that can make insurers’ new policy provisions invalid if they failed to provide proper notice of material changes to the policy.  In other words, if an insurer drastically changes an insurance policy, it can’t call it a renewal because the homeowner might not ever notice the change.  Usually, if that happens, the insurer will be forced to apply the old parts of the policy if it failed to provide notice of the new terms.

  • Here, in Shelton, we had what most could consider to be a material change – a change in coverage from all sinkhole damage to only the worst forms of sinkhole damage.
  • However, the court used Fla. Stat. 627.43121 to state that this was a change in policy terms that was mandated by the legislature; therefore, it was not a “change in policy terms” as defined by the law, and it did not require heightened notice procedures.

Conclusion

So … all of those sinkhole claims may not be covered … and we are just finding this out now?

Of course, the Eleventh Circuit does not bind Florida state courts, and Florida’s appellate courts could take a completely different position. However, like yesterday’s post about the contract for repairs ruling, we are finding out this information a little late.

Unlike with the contract for repairs decision we discussed yesterday, this delay was outside of everyone’s control.  The statutory definition came into effect in 2011, yet the contract for repairs requirement arose years and years before that. For homeowners insurers to get a ruling on the statutory definition issue, they had to wait this long for it to go up the ladder to the Eleventh Circuit.

The vast majority of these claims – hundreds of millions of dollars worth of claims – are resolved. Thus, the impact is very limited.

Nevertheless, thousands of claims and lawsuits remain pending, and this case should give homeowners insurers and their attorneys a big boost in their arguments to resolve these cases.

Takeaway

Like the opinion in yesterday’s post, homeowners insurers would have been much better served if they had this opinion a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, homeowners insurers and attorneys had no choice but to let this issue linger in the federal system until now.

It will be interesting to see if Florida courts side with the Eleventh Circuit, or if they focus more on the argument that insurers are free to provide more coverage than the statutes.  For the good of the industry, hopefully that Florida appellate opinion comes out soon.


For More Information on Sinkhole Claims Updates …

For more information on some of the extremely important sinkhole claim updates, please read these articles:


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And here is the complete copy of the order:

Download (PDF, 56KB)

Florida Sinkhole Homeowners Insurance Update Regarding the Contract for Repairs Argument Being Upheld

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

Overview

One of the hundred million dollar sinkhole insurance questions has finally been answered by Florida’s Second DCA: even if the insurer denies a claim, homeowners are not entitled to coverage for the cost of subsurface stabilization repairs until they enter into a contract for those repairs.


McKee v. Tower Hill: the Rulings

In Andrew McKee v. Tower Hill, Florida’s Second DCA determined the following:

(For a full copy of the order, scroll to the end of this post.)

Subsurface Stabilization Repairs

  • The homeowner was not entitled to the cost of subsurface stabilization repairs because he failed to enter into a contract for those repairs.
    • Note #1: the Second DCA did not specify whether the homeowner could have entered into a contract during litigation or before the judgment.
    • Note #2: this is an important victory for Tower Hill because the homeowner likely argued that Tower Hill’s denial prevented it from entering into a contract for repairs.
      • The homeowner probably argued that it did not want to enter into a very large contract without assurances from Tower Hill that it would cover the cost. The homeowner probably also argued that Tower Hill’s denial was a breach that made the contract for repairs provision unenforceable.
      • Importantly, Tower Hill avoided these prior breach arguments and remained entitled to rely on the contract for repairs requirement.

Breach of Contract

  • Despite Tower Hill’s argument that the homeowner prematurely filed suit without complying with policy conditions, the Second DCA appeared to uphold a finding that Tower Hill breached the contract.  This is not 100% clear from the order.
    • Note #1: the Second DCA held that the sinkhole loss settlement provision and post loss conditions were conditions to the amount of coverage provided, not coverage itself.
    • Note #2: I have not had the opportunity to review the briefs, but based on the opinion, this leads me to believe that the homeowner may still be entitled to his attorney’s fees.
      • Why? Because he may have prevailed on the underlying breach of contract action, and he likely will be able to obtain a judgment for the coverage to repair the above ground, cosmetic damages.
      • If Tower Hill filed a valid Proposal for Settlement, though, then it may not be required to pay the homeowner’s attorney’s fees.
      • If the Court finds Tower Hill breached the contract, the attorneys fees at this stage could exceed $200,000.00.

Prejudgment Interest

  • Lastly, the Second DCA determined Tower Hill was not required to pay prejudgment interest for the subsurface repairs because, as noted above, the homeowner is not entitled to the cost of those repairs, and this was outside of Tower Hill’s control.

Conclusions

The Good News

This case clarifies the issues on a common set of circumstances in Florida sinkhole claims.

The Bad News

  • Too little, too late?: This ruling comes a bit late – tens of thousands of sinkhole claims have been resolved without any insurer taking this common, specific issue through the appellate process.
  • Expensive Unanswered Questions: The Second DCA is required to focus on the specific issue it is asked, and it will not give advisory opinions. This leaves a few important questions unanswered:
    • This ruling does not answer the question of whether a homeowner can enter into a contract during litigation.
  • Attorney’s Fees: Depending on some other issues outside of this ruling, Tower Hill may have “won the battle but lost the war” because they may be required to pay the homeowner hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees … despite this favorable ruling.

Takeaway

You have to applaud Tower Hill and the homeowner’s attorneys for finally taking this issue this far up the judicial chain, and finally giving the the Florida homeowners insurance industry some guidance on this set of facts.  This ruling, however, would have had 100x the impact if it was issued 5 years ago, and comes with several limitations that make it hard to determine its overall impact on the remaining cases.


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And here is the complete copy of the order:

Download (PDF, 48KB)

Florida Sinkhole Homeowners Insurance Update on Lobello v. State Farm

Florida Homeowners Insurance Claims and Litigation Handbook

Overview:

Once Senate Bill 408 began limiting Florida insurance sinkhole claims under newer policies, homeowners insurers started to see more “back-dated” claims.  “Back-dated claims” involve homeowners reporting claims with dates of loss two, three and four years old.  Many homeowners insurers reacted by denying the claims with the late notice defense.

Florida’s Second DCA recently issued an opinion that touches on the subject, but does not answer the most important questions.  Regardless, if you handle homeowners insurance claims, you must read the article to see what the Second DCA had to say about the late notice defense for sinkhole claims.


In LoBello v. State Farm, Florida’s Second DCA teases us with a ruling on the late notice defense for a homeowners sinkhole claim, but if you read closely, you will notice that the Second DCA left the door open for a homeowners insurer to use the right arguments and evidence to prevail on this issue.

What do I mean by that?

The Second DCA determined that the Circuit Court failed to apply the two-prong test for late notice claims in Florida homeowners insurance cases:

  1. Was the notice late? and
  2. If so, can the homeowner overcome the presumption that the late notice prejudiced the homeowners insurer?

If you already read First Party Property Insurance Blog’s articles on late notice, then I know you would never allow the Court to miss the two prong late notice test.

Unfortunately, in LoBello, there is no indication that State Farm had evidence to support either of the prongs.

Late Notice

First, although the homeowners reported the claim four years after first noticing the damage to their property, State Farm failed to tie that together with the required proof that the homeowners should have known they had a claim at that time.  I could go on for days about how tricky of an issue this is considering most engineers will attribute most cracking to excluded causes; however, that is for another post.

What you do need to realize is that the Second DCA wanted State Farm to prove why the homeowners should have known to report the claim at that time.  Some examples of this could have been asking the homeowners under oath whether their neighbors had any claims, whether they knew about them, whether they knew about sinkhole activity and sinkhole claims, and whether they had consulted with anyone.

In fairness, State Farm’s attorneys could have asked these questions, but the Second DCA’s opinion suggests that State Farm’s attorneys solely relied on the time that passed – 4 years – without discussing why the homeowners should have known to report the claim when they saw the cracks.

Prejudice

Next, the Second DCA also dismissed the Circuit Court’s reasoning because it never went on to the second prong of the late notice analysis – prejudice.

When the Circuit Court determined the notice was late, then it was required to consider the evidence and make a ruling as to whether the homeowner could overcome the presumption that the late notice prejudiced State Farm. There is no mention of an affidavit from an engineer stating that it could not determine the timing of the damages due to the late notice, which I have been recommending to homeowners insurers since my first late notice sinkhole case.  That would have been the evidence necessary to support the prejudice, and the homeowner would have had to produce some expert testimony stating that cause and timing still could be determined four years later.

Essentially, by failing to go through this two prong analysis, the Circuit Court gave the Second DCA no choice but to reverse the ruling.

Although there were some other issues in this case that you should read, this late notice discussion was the main focus.

Importantly, the Second DCA did not remand the case for a further review of the evidence by the Circuit Court Judge; instead, the Court determined that the jury would have to decide whether the homeowners failed to timely report the claim by reporting 4 years after noticing the cracks and, if so, whether they could overcome the presumption of prejudice.

Another issue that homeowners insurers need to address for these late notice sinkhole cases – new policy language may give the homeowners a 2 year “safe harbor” to report sinkhole claims, depending on how the Courts interpret it.  If you are familiar with the new policies, then you know what I am talking about.  If you are not, then I encourage you to quickly contact me to discuss this issue.  (This was not relevant to the LoBello case because the policy was written well before Senate Bill 408’s amendments took effect.)

Here is the complete LoBello v. State Farm order:

Download (PDF, 152KB)

The Second DCA in LoBello discussed several of the recent Florida late notice cases, and I have very comprehensive articles on these cases here.

Homeowners insurers need to get a firm grasp on the late notice law. Not only do they need to make sure they have the right arguments and evidence for these “back-dated” sinkhole claims; more importantly, they need to be prepared if another hurricane hits.

Takeaway:

Like any claim, a late notice sinkhole claim can be broken down into a scope of work. Homeowners insurers have groups of very skilled attorneys that, together, could have solved this issue years ago. There are key questions and evaluations insurers must ask their counsel every time, and State Farm missed them in this case.  Why?  Because it is clear that State Farm did not automate the process of gathering claim and case information that it needs.  Otherwise, it would have been forced to make sure that all of its attorneys agreed with the strategy, and it would have built a system around the best combined strategy from all of its attorneys.  Its unlikely this strategy would have included the mistake discussed in Lobello.

You can supervise/adjust these claims the old fashioned way, or you can supervise claims and cases using software that automates the checklist nature of a cases like these. Don’t just hand claims and cases off without a structured system for evaluating and communicating the key information.  If you are interested in learning more about checklists and software for supervising sinkhole claims, especially late notice sinkhole claims, please message me.


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Florida Homeowners Insurance Sinkhole Claims Analysis: Sinkholes and MSJs on the Stabilization Repairs (Pre-408 Policies)

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*April 30, 2014: as a result in the decline in sinkhole claims, there have not been many developments on the contract for repair requirement since I first won this issue over a year ago.  

Insurance Policy

Insurance Policy

In a sinkhole case, can an insurer win a summary judgment that the insured is not entitled to coverage for subsurface repairs, even though that insured has entered into a contract for stabilization repairs in accordance with recommendations of the engineer the insured retained? Yes, even if the policy did not incorporate the statutory amendments from Senate Bill 408.

I previously obtained a summary judgment (and at least one other Judge in Hillsborough county has adopted the same position) in a Hillsborough county case where the Court ruled that:

if the insured wanted coverage for the cost of stabilization repairs, the policy and applicable statutes required the insured to enter into a contract for stabilization repairs that was in accordance with the recommendations of the engineer selected or approved by the engineer retained by the insurer.

The Court determined that, although the insured had entered into a contract for repair in accordance with her engineer’s recommendations, she still was not entitled to any coverage for stabilization repairs.

The Court cited five reasons:

1. Fla. Stat. 627.707 (5) (a) (2005) requires the coverage to be the cost of repairs recommended by the insurer’s engineer:

“if a sinkhole loss is verified, the insurer shall pay to stabilize the land and building and repair the foundation in accordance with the recommendations of the professional engineer as provided under s. 627.7073, and in consultation with the policyholder, subject to the coverage and terms of the policy.”

The engineer provided under Fla. Stat. 627.7073 is (usually) the engineer retained by the insurer; therefore, Fla. Stat. 627.707 (5) (a) requires the insurer to provide coverage in accordance with its engineer’s specifications.

2. Fla. Stat 627.7073 (1) (c) (2006) provides a presumption of correctness for purposes of relying on the insurer’s retained engineer’s recommendations:

“The respective findings, opinions, and recommendations of the professional engineer or professional geologist as to the cause of distress to the property and the findings, opinions, and recommendations of the professional engineer as to land and building stabilization and foundation repair shall be presumed correct.”

The Court understood that this was not a presumption in evidence terms; however, it was a presumption that made sense in combination with Fla. Stat. 627.707 (5) (2005) and the policy form.

3. The first half of Fla. Stat. 627.707 (5) (b) (2005) limits coverage for stabilization repairs until the insured enters into the contract for stabilization repairs covered by the insurer:

“The insurer may limit its payment to the actual cash value of the sinkhole loss, not including underpinning or grouting or any other repair technique performed below the existing foundation of the building, until the policyholder enters into a contract for the performance of building stabilization or foundation repairs. After the policyholder enters into the contract, the insurer shall pay the amounts necessary to begin and perform such repairs as the work is performed and the expenses are incurred. … “

4. The second half of Fla. Stat. 627.707 (5) (b) (2005) provides insureds with recourse in the event the stabilization repairs recommended by the insurer’s engineer are not sufficient:

“If repair covered by a personal lines residential property insurance policy has begun and the professional engineer selected or approved by the insurer determines that the repair cannot be completed within the policy limits, the insurer must either complete the professional engineer’s recommended repair or tender the policy limits to the policyholder without a reduction for the repair expenses incurred.”

5. The policy properly incorporated these provisions.

Other Notes

The Court had actually ruled against this same argument weeks before this hearing; however, when presented with a complete understanding of the statutory framework, the Court agreed that the statutes and policy require an insured to enter into a contract in accordance with the insurer’s retained engineer’s stabilization repair plan if he or she wants that coverage.

We also argue that the following two cases suggest that an insurer should be entitled to summary judgment on the cosmetic repairs when an insured has not entered into a compliant contract for stabilization repairs:

Ceballo v. Citizens, 967 So. 2d 811 (Fla. 2007) and

Slayton v. Universal Property and Casualty Ins. Co., 103 So. 3d 934 (Fla. 5th DCA 2013).

We read these cases as supporting the proposition that, without the subsurface repairs, any dispute on the estimated cosmetic damages is simply premature. The insured should be giving the insurer the opportunity to coordinate performance of the stabilization repairs, then inspect the property after those repairs are complete, and then issue any supplemental payment for additional damages that might be necessary. Although the provisions at issue in Slayton and Ceballo are not identical to the sinkhole loss provisions, the sinkhole loss settlement provisions also indicate that additional damages may occur after the repairs and there may be more coverage available.

I’d be happy to provide you with copies of the orders or anything else you might need in regards to these issues.

Sinkhole Formation

Sinkhole Formation

 

Takeaway:

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