Sinkhole Disclosure: Are you covered?

In a state geologically prone to sinkhole activity, Florida residents have watched real life drama unfold when serious cases have received local and national media attention. In most instances, insurance companies play the part of the “bad guy” as homeowners struggle to cover the cost of damage and repairs, and in some cases, the unimaginable loss of life.

While most geological issues rarely reach the serious category of a “sinkhole”, recent high-profile cases can be a good lesson in how to protect yourself, your property and your family should you ever discover sinkhole activity in your area.

In January 2015, homeowners in Tampa discovered significant cracks on and around their home, and contacted their homeowner’s insurance company. State Farm insurance hired an engineering firm to inspect the property, and despite documented sinkhole activity, the insurance company denied a claim to stabilize the house. Eight months later, a 6-foot deep sinkhole opened up between their home and a neighbor’s.

“You see what the end results of their decision was,” said Chris Codling, a Givens Givens Sparks attorney representing one of the homeowners. “This could have been easily prevented – they knew this property was experiencing some sinkhole conditions.”

Within weeks, Codling’s litigation of the case resulted in State Farm’s decision to a full tender of the homeowner’s policy.

While insurance companies can often be the hold up in a sinkhole case, sometimes there is a twist.

In December 2014, Victoria and Adam Cooper bought their new home on 2.4 acres just north of Tampa in Spring Hill, Fla., and then lost their homeowner’s insurance several weeks later when Citizens Property Insurance dropped their coverage. The insurance company had discovered that they had already paid out a $153,000 sinkhole claim to the previous owners of the property in 2009, and had erronously allowed the new owners to obtain insurance for the same address.

The sinkhole activity at the property was news to the Coopers, who had bought the home from Glenn and Kathryn Jasen and were provided with signed real estate disclosure forms fraudulently indicating no knowledge of a sinkhole or sinkhole claim. Not only were the Jasens aware of the sinkhole, but they had also pocketed their settlement claim in 2009 without making the proper repairs to fix the sinkhole.

The Coopers would have been alerted to the sinkhole claim via the county property appraiser’s office, as required by Florida law, had Citizens filed a sinkhole certification on the property with Hernando County. The insurance company, however, failed to file the proper form until they realized their coverage mistake with the Coopers, more than five years after the claim.

In this case, a federal jury found the Jasens guilty of wire fraud related to their fraudulent real estate disclosure forms, a verdict that could cost the couple up to 20 years in prison. Prosecutors are also seeking financial restitution for the Cooper family who has had to move out of the unsafe home even though they are still financially responsible for the worthless property.

Insurance claims can be complicated and challenging to navigate on your own. For more information about insurance claim representation or to contact one of our attorneys for a consultation.

Sources:

  1. WFLA
  2. Florida Geological Survey
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