Tampa Tribune: Other side in sinkhole controversy responds

Other side in sinkhole controversy responds

"Apparently we have hit a nerve," a deadpan state Sen. Mike Fasano declared.

The New Port Richey-area Republican was referring to a slew of reactions from attorneys and insurance public adjusters as word leaked out about ideas floating around to modify state regulations on sinkhole damage claims in 2011.

Lawmakers, businesses and insurers held two recent conferences in Tampa to shape ideas for possible legislation next year. Fasano had dispatched his right-hand man, chief legislative assistant Greg Giordano, to the conferences.

Two Trinity-area attorneys, Alan S. Marshall and Kenneth Thomas, were invited to speak after the first event. The second conference included no lawyers. But sinkholes are a very deep subject, attorneys and adjusters insist, which can defy easy classification.

"We still don't know how the law will be interpreted from the last three changes in the past five years" by lawmakers, Marshall said in a telephone interview.

The Florida Supreme Court is supposed to hear an appeal in a crucial case of Michael Warfel vs. Universal Insurance Company of North America.

"Let's figure out what the law is now," Marshall said, then lawmakers could make other changes to sinkhole regulations.

"We're not trying to hurt insurance companies, we're trying to work with insurance companies and protect the homeowners in the process," Marshall said. His firm has handled some 2,000 sinkhole cases.

Most insurers, however, don't accept the option of underpinning a home, which Marshall believes is as effective or more effective than trying to plug a hole with concrete or other fill.

Some policies might exclude many sinkhole repairs or set limits too low on dollar amounts paid out for repairs, Marshall thinks.

"The insurance industry does not like for sinkholes to happen because they hurt profits," William "Chip" Merlin, Jr., president and the founder of Merlin Law Group based in Tampa, remarked. The resident suffers a big drop in a home's value.

"The problem is that people in Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Hillsborough counties are in the sinkhole capital of the United States," Merlin continued. "Now that so many more people live here, it is only natural that more sinkhole losses show up. It is a tragedy. For anybody to suggest that attorneys cause this is insurance company propaganda.

"The way it works now is that the insurance industry has passed laws that create fights where the rules are in favor of the insurance company before the claim was ever submitted."

A policyholder's


"I'm up the creek without a paddle," Allan Schwartz, a River Crossing resident, said about keeping sinkhole coverage on his Citizens Property Insurance policy.

The basic policy from the state-run insurer of last resort only covers "catastrophic ground collapse" that makes a house uninhabitable. Many homeowners with Citizens coverage have opted out of full sinkhole coverage to dramatically reduce premiums.

Not Schwartz.

He said a friend in Palm Harbor had two sinkholes that required $330,000 worth of work filling them in with concrete. Schwartz wonders if insurance companies are using sinkholes as an excuse to raise rates.

"Why am I made to feel I have a gun to my head?" Schwartz asked.

Neutral evaluators

Assertions by Fasano's staff that residents could rely on free services through the state's neutral evaluators without hiring attorneys or adjusters spurred the strongest criticism. The state has certified 43 evaluators.

"It's very hard for an engineering company to be neutral," Marshall said. "There's only a couple who are really fair."

Besides, neutral evaluators merely check initial sinkhole damage reports. "It's just a rubber stamp on the first report."

Dan Baldwin of Baldwin and Associates believes neutral evaluators work best when they simply offer a second opinion. His Trinity-based training and consulting firm handles dispute resolutions.

"In fact, the same testing companies most often used by insurance companies are listed as neutral evaluators," Baldwin wrote in a letter to the Department of Financial Services. "How neutral can these neutral evaluators be if one day they're working for an insurance company, and the next day they're evaluating or judging that same insurance company?"

The process was designed to give insurance companies and homeowners a "second opinion" about the cause of damage to the home, Baldwin believes.

An adjuster's viewpoint

"There were sinkholes back then," said Charles R. "Dick" Tutwiler of Tampa, who began his insurance career 37 years ago. He is now a licensed public adjuster who handles sinkhole cases in nine states.

"This is not a new phenomenon in Florida by any means," Tutwiler added in a phone interview. "Mother Nature has given us this (sinkhole-prone) geology out here and all of a sudden we've built on top of it."

A lot of people try to downplay the severity of the sinkhole, Tutwiler added. The more common type of sinkholes might make it so doors and windows don't open, not cause a house-swallowing catastrophic sinkhole.

"Sinkholes are the worse thing that could happen to your house," Tutwiler commented. The cause is underground and difficult at times to detect, unlike clues left behind after a fire.

Tutwiler believes residents with sinkhole problems need good advice. "If the policyholder doesn't have an advocate, they have to do it on their own. They're going to be handicapped."



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