Sinkholes are not always large, gaping holes where the land gives way swallowing homes, business, roadways or land like you see on the evening news, magazines or in newspapers. Sinkholes occur when underground water erodes limestone beneath the ground surface. Sinkholes usually occur gradually and cause damage to a house or other structure over time. Due to the number of sinkhole claims in certain parts of Florida, the law has changed over the years. Most recently Florida Statutes and insurers are referring to the large gaping holes as “collapse” for the purposes of insurance. Insurers are now referring to the gradual erosion of limestone that causes cracking in buildings, driveways and depressions in a lawn as a sinkhole.
Sinkhole damages usually appear as cracking around door and window frames, foundation and wall cracking, pool and pipe leaks, separation of ceilings from walls, or the separation of the foundation from the house itself. Depressions in a yard, driveway cracking or depression, floors becoming lower in some areas, tree roots becoming exposed, and windows and doors not closing properly are all additional potential indications of sinkhole affected property. If you think your home or business property may be experiencing a sinkhole causing damage, you should notify your insurer immediately.
Whether a sinkhole exists on your property is determined through testing by a geologist or geotechnical engineer. Once you have reported the potential sinkhole claim to the insurer, a representative of your insurer conducts an inspection of your home or building. If he finds what he believes could be sinkhole damage to your property, a geologist or geotechnical engineer is normally retained by the insurer to do drilling and testing on your property. If the geologist or geotechnical engineer determines a sinkhole exists on your property, an engineer is then retained by the insurer to determine the extent of the damage, and to formulate a plan to remediate, or repair, the damage. These repairs include not only the damages you can see affecting your home or building, but also include the stabilization of the foundation and the ground beneath. Repairs must be done to the satisfaction of an engineer who will certify the ground as stabilized.
When an insurance carrier retains a geologist or geotechnical engineer, the insured must hope the expert conducting the testing on the property is not biased by the fact the insurer who hires him may retain his services frequently, and too many reports finding the existence of a sinkhole could result in an insurer no longer retaining the geologist or geotechnical engineer for future work. There are times when an insurer claims that the damages are not sinkhole related based upon their geological testing. Despite this, an unbiased expert may disagree with the insurer's determination based upon the test results. When we review a report denying the existence of a sinkhole, but containing indications in the report that a sinkhole may exist, we retain a geologist to conduct a review of the report prepared for the insurer. If our geologist or geotechnical engineer disagrees with the opinions of the expert retained by the insurer after a review of the insurer's report, we have them conduct additional testing of the property, and if this is indicative of a sinkhole, we take appropriate action for our clients.
If a sinkhole is found, but the remediation plan provided by the insurer's engineer seems insufficient, we retain a structural engineer to determine if the remediation plan recommended by the insurer's expert is proper. If the plan is insufficient, we have our selected engineer prepare his own plan to remediate the sinkhole and stabilize the insured property, and then take appropriate action against the insurer.
Under Florida law, if there is a dispute that a sinkhole exists on an insured’s property, either party may demand a “Neutral Evaluation.” This process is to the insurer’s advantage, limits attorney fees recoverable by the insured if the case is resolved, and can only be conducted by a “Neutral Evaluator” approved and appointed by the Florida Department of Financial Services. Under the statute, creating the “Neutral Evaluation," if the Neutral Evaluator finds a sinkhole exists, he must provide a report to both parties of his opinion of the costs to stabilize the land and any covered structures or buildings and other appropriate remediation or structural repairs. The recommendation of the Neutral Evaluator is not binding on any party, and the parties retain access to Court following the Neutral Evaluation process. If the insured disagrees with the results of the Neutral Evaluation, they can challenge the findings in court. Unfortunately, the Neutral Evaluator's written recommendation is admissible in any action relating to the claim.
If a sinkhole is found on the insured's property, the insurer has specific duties under Florida law. If they breach these duties, the Wells Law Group is experienced in the litigation and resolution of sinkhole claims. Through our experience, we have developed professional relationships with several exceptional geologists and engineers who scrutinize the insurer’s expert’s reports to ensure the geologist's report and opinions are supported by the information gathered by the testing. We retain these experts on our client's behalf to do drilling and testing of the soil to determine if a sinkhole exists and if so, the proper manner and extent of repair necessary to ensure the safety and quality of the structure. We also use contractors and estimators to ensure the cosmetic damages to the home or building are properly evaluated and repaired. The Wells Law Group will take appropriate action to enforce the promise the insurer made to you when you purchased the policy.
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Wells Law Group, P.A. • 1210 Millennium Parkway, Suite 1050 • Brandon, FL 33511 • Phone: (813) 413-8889